Fred LeBrun is rapidly emerging as the most astute education writer in New York State. He writes for the Albany Times-Union so there is a good chance that the Governor’s staff and the legislative staff read what he writes. I hope so.
In this article, he skewers Cuomo’s plan to put struggling schools into “receivership.” That’ll fix them. Millions will be burned while the state ignores the root causes of low-performance in school: poverty. It seems that all the schools on the Governor’s list are in poor communities. Black and brown children will be Cuomo’s playthings, as teachers and principals and other staff are fired and new ones brought in, who will also be fired.
It is painful to read. You know that millions of dollars will be spent on consultants, and by the time the money is all gone, there will be more schools to hand over to Cuomo’s hedge fund buddies to turn into low-performing charters.
While New York public education struggles to resolve an idiotic dependence on standardized tests, waiting in the wings is another poorly-thought-out plan threatening more harm than benefit: school receivership.
So far you haven’t heard a great deal about it because the dramatic consequences are a year off, but you will. And, unlike the statewide disgust over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s testing obsession that affects every school district and has gotten a lot of press, the threat of receivership at the moment hangs over only 144 “struggling” schools — not districts — all of them among the state’s poorest. Of these, 20 are labeled by the state Education Department as “persistently struggling” because of the length of time they’ve been “struggling” and need to turn themselves around in just a year, or else. The rest have two years.
In the Capital Region, only Albany’s William S. Hackett Middle School is on the persistent list, but if a handful of schools in Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Amsterdam, including Albany High School, don’t show appropriate progress, they will join Hackett next year.
What happens now for schools like Hackett is as complicated as directions to Atlantis, and about as reliable.
Albany school Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard becomes the acting school receiver, with broad powers, for the next year. A required community engagement team composed of the principal, staff, teachers, parents and even students from Hackett will forward recommendations for improvements to the superintendent, who will use them to help create her intervention plan to turn the school around. The plan is due at State Ed for approval by the end of this month. Over the next year, the community team will look over her shoulder as the intervention plan unfolds.
In the meantime, the school receiver can do pretty much what she wants (with approval from State Ed): change the curriculum, replace teachers and administrators, increase salaries, reallocate the budget, expand the school day or year, turn Hackett into a community school, even convert to a charter school. Although there’s enormous rigmarole attached to much of it, including going charter. Remember, the receiver in this case remains the superintendent for the rest of the district, so she is answerable for any wild and crazy ideas to the voters through the school board.
Anyway, to help start the process, Vanden Wyngaard can apply for a grant from a $75 million pot set up by the state, although she’ll have plenty of competition from other “persistently struggling” school receivers in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, New York City and elsewhere. She has a year to do her turnaround. Or the hammer falls and we are off to Neverland.
Then the state would appoint an independent receiver who is answerable only to State Ed. At which time the process of community involvement, an intervention plan, and the rest are repeated, only now change is apt to be far more radical, with wholesale staff firings. An independent receiver can be a person from an approved list that doesn’t yet exist, or an institution or charter school. Although charter schools upstate have been mostly a bust, as Albany well knows. Middle school charters in Albany could not save themselves, let alone others.
So. If you’re getting the idea that this receivership idea seems like a plan designed to fail and thus prepare the way for school privatizers to make a bundle, move over.
For one thing, the state has yet to give school receivers a clear idea of what would constitute appropriate progress to avoid an independent receiver. Presumably, we’ll know by the end of the month when intervention plans have to be approved. What is expected and how reasonable it is will answer a great deal.
Because just a year to show any marked improvement on any front for a school like Hackett, no matter how thoughtfully considered, broadly accepted by the community, or earnestly pursued, is absurd. Real change needs time for all stakeholders to become invested. Teachers at Hackett today are still complaining that attendance and discipline as major problems, just as it was when I substituted there, oh, a half century ago. These are, after all, manifestations of the poverty and despair underlying most of Hackett’s problems; they don’t go away. They are the community’s problems, not just Hackett’s.
And for any turnaround plan to stand a chance of success, it will need tons of money and sustained financing for years. Curiously, while the law creating school receiverships is rich in the detail of who can be fired and not rehired, on punitive measures, and what extraordinary powers a receiver may exercise, it does not specify who will pay for an independent receiver.
Keeping in mind, always, that the state has an abysmal record in meeting its education commitments. At the moment, the state owes New York City more than $2 billion in aid; Albany more than $37 million; Schenectady nearly $60 million.
So there you have it. A boondoggle in the making. Cuomo forced us to accept a mandate of an independent receiver for certain schools labeled struggling by his cohorts at State Ed, but so far there isn’t a hint of state money to pay for it. Can you imagine what that burden will do for school budgets like Albany’s?
Oh, and it gets better. Amusingly, the concept of “struggling” public schools is defined by the educational establishment as the bottom 5 percent of all state schools based on a host of criteria. Which means no matter how much struggling schools improve, there will always be 5 percent at the bottom who potentially need a receiver.
What a surprise.
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