There has been even more happening in New York State in the days since Dropout Nation analyzed the steps the American Federation of Teachers would take to help its three affiliates deal with the departure of scandal-tarred soon-to-be-former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and oppose efforts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and school reformers to continue transforming public education in the state.
On Wednesday, Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Carl Heastie, who was cited by your editor Tuesday night as a likely candidate to succeed Silver, formally announced his bid for the top legislative job. His candidacy was joined by that of Catherine Nolan, the Assembly Education Committee Chairman who, like Heastie, was originally part of the five-person committee charged by Silver to run things when he planned to temporarily step aside. Nolan is hoping that her fellow assembly members from Queens will ignore calls from the Democratic party machine there and give her a chance. But this isn’t likely to happen, especially after both the Queens Democratic machine and that in Brooklyn gave Heastie their support.
The support from Democrats in the Big Apple’s second-largest borough explains why longtime Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who had announced his bid earlier today withdrew it hours later. Keith Wright, the assemblyman who recently chaired the Empire State’s Democratic Party, also backed off his bid for the job. The Harlem politico likely kiboshed his plans after getting Heastie’s backing to run for the congressional seat that will be vacated by the infamous Charles Rangel next year; after all, part of Rangel’s district extends into the Bronx, where Heastie and his ally, Borough President Ruben Diaz, have control of the Democratic machine.
As a result of these machinations, Heastie is considered to be the front-runner to succeed Silver. But it isn’t a fait accompli. For one, Nolan could still rally women among Assembly Democrats to her side, especially playing upon their desire to replace Silver with the first woman in the state to hold one of the two top jobs in the state legislature. There’s also Joseph Morelle, Silver’s top lieutenant as Majority Leader, who can still command upstate Democrats to his side. Then there’s Heastie’s own reputation for alleged political corruption. This includes amassing more than $25,000 in credit card expenses that haven’t been accounted for, as well as collecting $20,706 in per-diem expenses, the most of any assemblyman. Imagine what the Daily News and the New York Post will sniff up in the coming weeks before February 10, when Assembly Democrats formally vote on Silver’s replacement. [Update: Both the Albany Project and the aforementioned Post have dug up some dirt on Heastie, while the Daily News decried his ties to the various Democratic Party political machines that are trying to regain power in both Albany and the Big Apple after decades of government reforms.]
What could this mean for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s school reform efforts and those of the movement? Who knows. As Dropout Nation noted on Tuesday, Heastie doesn’t have much of a record on reform issues; he is also heavily backed by private-sector unions, who are more-supportive of school reform than the American Federation of Teachers, its three affiliates in New York, and their public-sector union allies. There’s also the fact that Heastie’s main ally, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and his father, a state senator, are both backers of charter schools. But Heastie could also end up being an obstacle to any reform effort just because the AFT and its three affiliates are big backers of Assembly Democrats; Heastie alone collected $27,670 from New York State United Teachers and New York State Public Employees Federation since successfully winning his assembly spot 14 years ago. Heastie may have to give a little to AFT, which means watering down some reforms Cuomo wants to put in place, and blocking any effort to make state test score growth data a larger component of the teacher evaluation system, the bane of the union’s existence.
Meanwhile outside of Albany, AFT’s Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, is taking up the charge against Gov. Cuomo’s reform efforts. Today the union’s boss, Michael Mulgrew, railed against the governor’s plan to expand the number of charter schools in the state, proclaiming that this shouldn’t happen. One reason why: Because the charters enroll lower numbers of kids labeled special ed than traditional districts; special ed students accounted for just 8.9 percent of kids in Big Apple charters in 2012-2013 versus 12.7 percent for the city’s traditional district, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Playing off sister local Chicago Teachers Union’s practice of issuing white papers, UFT then issued a package of hit pieces accentuating Mulgrew’s point.
But as Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters pointed out in a 2013 report, the reality is that Big Apple charters enroll fewer kids labeled as special ed than the city’s traditional district because they are less-likely to overlabel struggling students. It isn’t that charters are refusing to let kids in special ed through their doors. In fact, as the Independent Budget Office shows in a study released this week, kids who are other health impaired (or suffer from actual health issues such as asthma or diabetes) make up a larger percentage of charter school special ed populations (10.5 percent) than in the city’s traditional district (8.6 percent). It is that they are not looking to condemn kids as special ed cases in the first place. Which, in turn, means that kids labeled as special ed by New York City’s traditional district are then brought into charters as regular ed students. As they almost always should be.
This is especially clear considering that, as Winters and others have noted, most children condemned to special ed ghettos are often put there based on rather subjective diagnoses that can often mistaken real learning issues as signs of cognitive problems. Many kids are condemned to special ed after being labeled as suffering from a “specific learning disability”, a vague catch-all that can include anything from dyslexia to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, burdened by emotionally disturbed (which could easily mean that the kids could either be poorly disciplined at home or suffer severe depression), considered developmentally delayed (which could mean that the kids are either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or functionally illiterate), or mentally retarded (for which illiteracy can often be mistaken).
What is happening is that charters, who usually attempt to ditch the same failed thinking as traditional district counterparts, simply educate kids otherwise labeled as special ed as regular students as they often should be. Which as the Independent Budget Office shows, is showing good results, especially in charters retaining larger numbers of all students (and losing fewer of them to attrition or push-outs) than Big Apple district counterparts. One reason why? Because in most cases, the decisions by traditional districts such as New York City to condemn kids to special ed ghettos (which, in turn, benefit AFT and National Education Association affiliates) are driven by factors other than the actual learning issues (especially illiteracy) with which they are struggling.
One is financial: Special ed kids generating more in state per-pupil spending than kids in regular classrooms. New York City, for example, collected an extra $1,227.61 in state aid per student for the 171,333 kids condemned to the district’s special ed ghettos, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the state’s Budget Office. [This, by the way, doesn’t include additional dollars provided by the state for special ed students through the main school funding formula or the dollars given to the city for special ed kids put into specialized private schools.] The additional money spent by the Empire State on special ed is likely one reason why districts in the state identified and condemned 17.3 percent of kids to special ed ghettos in 2009-2010, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a 2011 report; that was four percentage points more than the national average and more kids than every other state in the nation except Rhode Island.
The increased spending, in turn, benefits UFT and other teachers’ union locals because districts end up hiring more teachers and staffers under union contracts. UFT collects $50.74 every month from special ed paraprofessional on New York City’s payroll and picks up $101.46 from every teacher. In New York State alone, districts employ 186 teachers and paraprofessionals per 1,000 students, more than the national average of 129 per 1,000; just on those numbers, UFT may generate $14,154.60 per 186 teachers and paraprofessionals (based on an equal number of 93 of each) every month.
Put it bluntly, more kids in special ed ghettos means more dollars into UFT (and ultimately, AFT). Given its slow growth in rank-and-file as of late, UFT can use every dime it can get. And any expansion of charters, which are mostly non-unionized, will mean even fewer kids being labeled as special ed cases, and thus, less money for the union.
The other reason lies with the reality that many adults working in schools condemn children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with low expectations. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category; essentially they end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way.
These acts of condemning the futures of Big Apple children aren’t the only examples of educational malpractice committed by many teachers and school leaders in the New York City Department of Education. As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman has noted in the past few years, the district’s continued practice of rationing high-quality education from some children, especially through gifted-and-talented programs that benefit white middle class kids at the expense of peers black, Latino, and poor, remains shameful. Yet Mulgrew and UFT have expressed little concern about these issues, and have remained silent amid the raging debate over whether to keep in place the district’s system of selective public high schools such as Stuyvesant, another legacy of denying high-quality education to those who need it most.
Certainly Big Apple charters can do better on some fronts. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh forms traditional school discipline by many charters, especially by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain, betrays the mission of the charter school movement to build brighter futures for all children by not replicating the bad practices of traditional public education. But Mulgrew’s professed concerns about equity are mere covers for defending a failed system that has benefited UFT and AFT, as well as his own pockets. Expanding charters that can help more kids avoid special ed ghettos should be the first thing state legislators do once Assembly Democrats choose Silver’s replacement.