The big sort

Caught in the Upper West Side integration debate, educators at this middle school say test scores don’t tell the whole story

PHOTO: Mia Simring
An integration debate in District 3 has put schools like West Prep in the spotlight. Teachers and school leaders say their low test scores hide the progress many students make once they enroll there.

When Nicole Feliciano wrapped up a lesson this week on civil rights, she asked her eighth-graders at West Prep Academy to write down their questions about racism on multi-colored notecards. The social studies teacher was heartbroken when she came across one response in particular.

“What kind of person was that lady that talked about our school?” one student wanted to know.

The note seemed like an obvious reference to the viral news footage that has inflamed a present-day school integration debate on the Upper West Side. In the clip, a crowd of mostly white, middle-class parents protest a desegregation proposal that could mean their children are elbowed out of the most sought-after schools in District 3. One particularly angry mother said the plan was akin to telling hard-working students, “You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”

The footage doesn’t directly mention West Prep, a tiny school on the cusp of Harlem where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. But the implication was clear to parents, teachers, and school leaders there: Schools like theirs would not be acceptable to parents like those.

“You hear these things about our school, and that we’re a bad school — at the end of the day, you’re talking about the children who are here,” Feliciano said. “And there’s nothing bad about our students.”

The superintendent in District 3 has proposed to offer a quarter of seats at every middle school to students who earn low scores on state tests. Since test scores are tightly linked to race and class — 84 percent of the district’s lowest-scoring students are black or Hispanic — the plan could integrate schools racially, financially and academically.

The plan is still being debated so the outlines could change. As it stands, the proposal has plenty of backers. But it has also faced pushback from parents who worry that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — will no longer guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

Those parents have largely shunned schools like West Prep, clamoring instead for just a handful of others that reliably feed students into the city’s most competitive high schools. Compared to those schools, West Prep has much lower test scores and therefore doesn’t have a track record of sending students to in-demand high schools.

As far as Principal Carland Washington is concerned, those statistics don’t paint a full picture of what’s going on at West Prep. He acknowledges the school has challenges, but says the staff has been set up for those challenges through an admissions process that filters students into two tiers of schools: those that almost exclusively enroll top scorers, and those that enroll everybody else.

“I would much rather everybody call it for what it is: This is a school for the students who are lower performing because we took all the other ones, and put them somewhere else,” he said. “We serve whoever shows up at the front door.”

There’s no getting around it — West Prep’s scores are far lower than more competitive middle schools. Only a third of West Prep students passed state English tests in 2017, compared with 60 percent across the district. In math, 13 percent of students passed, compared with 54 percent districtwide.

Their unimpressive test scores, though, don’t show the progress many West Prep students have made since arriving there. Washington said about 90 percent of students start sixth grade already behind grade level. City data shows that 43 percent of students who entered West Prep with low test scores improved their performance on state math tests — about double the results of schools with similarly needy students. In English, 83 percent of students showed progress, compared to 53 percent.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘Well, they didn’t work hard. And my kid did.’ That kind of stuff, it really breaks my heart,” said Cidalia Costa, who helps recruit for the school. “Because we see our kids, and we see our parents, and we see them working hard. And they’re more than just a number that we attach to them.”

That’s why, when a recent New York Times story referred to West Prep by little more than its test scores, Feliciano dashed off a four-page defense of the school where she has taught for about six years. She is the social studies department chair and proud of her national board certification, which hangs on her classroom wall along with her degrees.

A main question from concerned parents is whether schools like West Prep can serve students with a range of academic abilities well in the same classroom. Feliciano says that’s already happening.

In her eighth grade social studies class, Feliciano is using a high school curriculum to teach students about the Little Rock Nine, who integrated an Arkansas high school back in 1957. The class moves briskly, with a large red countdown clock constantly buzzing: There are three minutes to brainstorm definitions of racism, another three minutes to write examples of how it remains embedded in society, and five minutes for students to discuss their ideas with each other. The students don’t need to be coaxed to raise their hands or contribute.

“Isn’t racism based on fear?” one student asked. “It’s, like, the fear of the unknown.”

Some of the students in Feliciano’s class are strong test takers and perform on grade level. Others have been placed there after showing enough progress in isolated special education programs to join their peers in a mainstream classroom. Everyone is learning the same content, but with little tweaks built into each lesson to help push the struggling students along. She may flash a checklist of instructions on the electronic board to help them stay on task, or give some a chart to organize their work while others tackle assignments independently.

“We’re not just showing up here, babysitting kids, and watering down the curriculum, and teaching the alphabet and phonics,” Washington said.

School staff say it’s unfair to divorce student performance from the way students are sorted into middle school. In District 3, there are no attendance zones assigned by address. Instead, families apply to the schools of their choice. Most middle schools in District 3 are screened, meaning they admit students based on factors such as test scores, attendance, or even a personal interview. West Prep is one of the few schools that is unscreened, meaning it accepts anyone who applies.

Every year, West Prep puts on a show at middle school fairs, where parents come to learn about their options. Costa brings fistsful of balloons and hauls in computer screens that flash the school’s selling points: It’s small and offers a full marching band, performing arts program, and Regents coursework to give students a headstart on their high school classes and credit towards graduation. And because many of its students come from poor families, it does this on a shoestring budget compared to schools that have powerhouse parent organizations — like Booker T. Washington, which raised about $600,000 last year, according to tax forms.

Costa sees that the district’s most selective middle schools don’t have to put nearly as much effort into recruitment. West End Secondary School, one of the district’s most sought-after, had almost 600 applications last year for about 70 seats. West Prep could take in 100 more students, if only they would come. The school serves about 200 students, taking up two hallways in a building shared with a pre-K and elementary school.

“It’s really hard to change or shape people’s hearts and minds when we have a population that’s really, very needy,” she said. “It just seems like we had the cards stacked up against us.”

Despite all the controversy, the District 3 proposal is not likely to change much for West Prep or most of the other local middle schools. A simulation of admissions offers, based on last year’s application data, shows that West Prep would admit three more students who passed state tests. Most of its new students, 74 percent, would still come with low test scores. Similarly modest changes are expected across the District, with most high-scoring students still packed into just a few schools.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, said Shamel Flowers, whose son is in seventh grade at West Prep. Overwhelmed by the middle school application process, Flowers settled on West Prep almost immediately after the principal welcomed her for a tour. She was looking for a place that would challenge her son academically, but also support him during what can be a tough transition in adolescence.

Since the debate has unfolded in District 3, Flowers said her son has come to her with questions.

“He’s wondered if this is a race issue. He’s wondered is it a class issue,” she said.

This year, 88 percent of District 3 students with top scores on state tests got one of their top three middle school choices. That was true for students with the lowest scores only 55 percent of the time. Taking the first step towards giving students more options would send a powerful message, Flowers said.

“Every child should have the right to choose a school where they want to be and that school should be open to having them,” Flowers said. “We need to break down the wall that’s there.”

Rock the vote

Not sure how to vote for Detroit school board? Read candidate answers to six key questions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Eight candidates are running for two open seats on the Detroit school board.

The eight candidates vying for two seats on the Detroit school board include a recent high school grad, a financial analyst, a former district superintendent, a youth sports coach, and religious leaders.

For the most part, they all say they want to help improve the city schools but they have different ways of getting there.

Some candidates say the district should close some of its smaller schools that aren’t fully enrolled. Others say they believe there are ways to raise the $500 million the district says it needs to bring its buildings up to modern standards.

Some candidates are open to collaborating with charter schools on things like enrollment and transportation. Others have concerns about collaborating with schools that compete directly with the district for students and staff.

Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit surveyed school board candidates on six important issues facing the district. Seven of the eight candidates submitted written answers, either this week or last month in the lead-up to our school board candidate forum.

Scroll down to read their answers, which have been published verbatim, though they have been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar, and syntax. Read all of the candidates’ answers or click only on the names of the candidates you’re considering to see their answers.

Two seats are up for election this year. Deborah Hunter-Harvill is the only incumbent running for re-election. All seats on the seven-member Detroit school board represent the whole city, not smaller districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Amendment 73: Understanding the tax increase for education on your Colorado ballot

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Thousands of Colorado teachers protested for more education funding in April. What will voters say in November?

Colorado voters face an important education decision this November: whether to approve a major statewide tax increase for schools. This request represents the third time in recent years that Colorado voters have been asked to put more money into schools.

The last two times, they gave a resounding no. Amendment 73 comes on the heels of teacher protests here and around the nation that have raised awareness of low pay and other unmet classroom needs.

Proponents of the measure say Colorado schools can’t keep doing more with less and need new revenue to do right by students. Opponents say that raising taxes will hurt the state’s economic prosperity without necessarily improving student outcomes.

Here’s what you need to know to make a decision:

What does Amendment 73 do?

This measure would create a graduated income tax for people earning more than $150,000 a year and would raise the state corporate tax rate. It also would change the assessment rate — the portion of your property value that is taxed — for commercial and residential property.

Altogether, these changes are projected to raise an additional $1.6 billion a year for preschool through 12th-grade education. That’s in addition to the roughly $9.7 billion in federal, state, and local money that Colorado will spend this year on schools.

The amendment raises the base amount Colorado is required to spend on each student, and it also dedicates money to preschool spots, full-day kindergarten, students with disabilities, those learning English, and those identified as gifted and talented.

Why is this on the ballot?

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that all tax increases be approved by voters. As for this particular tax increase, Colorado funds its schools below the national average, and since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have diverted to other areas billions of dollars constitutionally due to education.

Proponents of the measure believe the only way to adequately fund Colorado schools is to tap into an additional revenue source, like these tax increases.

Opponents counter that administrative spending has grown faster than student population and teacher salaries, and that the state and school districts could free up money for classrooms by setting new priorities.

I see amendments and propositions on my ballot. What’s the difference?

Propositions become laws and can be changed by the legislature. Amendments become part of the state constitution and can only be changed by another vote of the people. Amendments need the approval of 55 percent of voters to pass, a higher bar than propositions that only require a simple majority.

How will the money be spent? What guarantees do we have that it will reach the classroom?

Amendment 73 requires that new money “supplement and not supplant” existing funding. That means the legislature cannot redirect current spending on education and replace it with this new funding source. The amendment says the legislature should adopt a new formula for distributing money to districts that takes into account student and district characteristics, but it doesn’t lay out exactly what that should look like.

In the meantime, Amendment 73 describes specific uses for $866 million in new revenue:

  • Base spending per student will go up from $6,769 to $7,300, a 7.8 percent increase
  • Funding for full-day kindergarten. Right now, districts get a little more than half a student’s worth of funding for each kindergarten student.
  • An 8.3 percent increase for preschoool, bringing the total to $131 million
  • A 6.8 percent increase for special education, bringing the total to $296.1 million
  • An 80 percent increase for gifted and talented programs, bringing the total to $22.5 million
  • A 93 percent increase for English language learners, bringing the total to $41.6 million

The extra money that districts currently receive for students with disabilities, those learning English and those identified as gifted accounts for a fraction of the additional cost of educating them, particularly in the case of students with more significant disabilities. Districts have to use tracking codes to account for this money and ensure it goes to its intended purpose. In some districts, additional money might translate into better services for these students, while others might use the additional dedicated funding to free up other money.

That leaves $738.6 million that can be spent on public education as determined by the legislature. Once that money lands in school district coffers, they have broad discretion over how to spend it. This is by design and part of an effort to get buy-in from around the state. Many school boards have passed non-binding resolutions promising to spend the money on teacher pay, more mental health supports for students, and lower class sizes.

In turn, opponents have criticized the lack of specificity as a blank check that won’t necessarily increase teacher salaries or improve student outcomes.

A recent analysis from EdChoice found that since 1992, teacher salaries in Colorado had fallen even as per-student funding and the number of administrators had increased. Colorado Department of Education records show that instructional staff — teachers, counselors, speech language pathologists, school nurses — increased by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016 while administrative staff increased by 34 percent. School administrators argue these positions are necessary to support the work that teachers do and keep districts in compliance with a host of new state and federal regulations. In smaller districts, administrators often wear multiple hats. When we ask teachers about this issue, some of them share the concern that too much money gets spent on central administration, even as they also believe schools need more money overall

You can look up how much your district spends here.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are ‘underfunded’? Compared to what? How underfunded?

There are several different ways to look at this. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, ranks Colorado 28th in per pupil spending when state, local, and federal money is combined and puts Colorado about $758 per student below the national average. Education Week does a more complex ranking that takes into account regional cost differences and puts Colorado nearly $2,800 below the national average. Colorado teacher salaries are among the least competitive in the nation, making it hard to recruit and retain educators. More than 100 of Colorado’s 178 school districts operate on four-day weeks.

Back in 2000, after previous years of budget cuts, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by population plus inflation. But starting with the Great Recession, Colorado lawmakers have not allocated all the money required by that amendment. Over the past 10 years, Colorado schools have missed out on $7.5 billion the law requires them to receive. The courts have upheld this budget maneuver. Money from Amendment 73 could not be reallocated during the next downturn, protecting schools but potentially creating other budget problems for the state.

Colorado also gets low marks on equity. Colorado spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity. Per-student spending varies widely around the state, with rich districts often getting more state money than poor ones. Some districts have convinced voters to approve local property tax increases, while other have not — or have such low tax bases that voters would need to take on large increases to generate much benefit. The additional funding from these local tax increases varies from $32 to $5,024 per student.

Amendment 73 wouldn’t change these structural problems with school funding. It would give state lawmakers more money with which to level the playing field. Right now, sending more money to some districts would require reducing funding to others, creating a political minefield.

Will I pay more in income taxes if Amendment 73 passes?

People who earn up to $150,000 a year will keep paying the same 4.63 percent state income tax rate they do now. Those earning more will pay a sliding increase starting at 5 percent for income from $150,001 to $200,000 up to 8.25 percent for income over $500,000. Someone with taxable income of $200,000 would pay an extra $185 a year, while someone with $1 million in taxable income would pay an extra $24,395, according to a fiscal analysis by the state.

The increases will affect about 8 percent of individual and joint income tax filers. Amendment 73 does not include a provision to adjust the income threshold for inflation, so it’s possible that more taxpayers will pay these higher rates in the future.

This change would generate most of the new revenue under Amendment 73.

What’s the effect on corporate taxes?

Amendment 73 would raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent. You can see how that compares to other states’ corporate income tax rates here. The average corporate income taxpayer would owe an additional $14,139, according to state fiscal analysts.

Would Amendment 73 raise my property taxes?

This is a complicated question. Amendment 73 does not raise property tax rates anywhere in the state. But if it passes, residential property owners will pay more in 2019 than they otherwise would have, while owners of non-residential property will pay less.

Amendment 73 fixes the assessment rate at 7 percent for residential and 24 percent for non-residential property. That’s lower than it is now, but other constitutional provisions would have pushed the residential rate even lower in 2019. 

Exactly how much more or less you pay will depend on your property value, real estate trends in your community, and local tax rates.

This represents a partial fix to a complicated fiscal problem that has bedeviled Colorado lawmakers and the administrators of rural taxing entities — school districts, fire protection districts, and others — for years.

In Colorado, your property is assessed at close to market value, but your local tax rate only applies to a portion of that value. That’s the assessment rate. Another constitutional provision known as the Gallagher Amendment ensures that non-residential property owners always pay a larger share of property taxes than homeowners. Since 1982, when the Gallagher Amendment was approved by voters, property values along Colorado’s developed Front Range have skyrocketed, putting the assessment ratios between residential and other property seriously out of whack. Those ratios apply statewide, and many rural communities have seen their already sparse tax base hollowed out.

In the case of schools, that’s meant the state government has had to backfill more and more money that used to be generated by local taxes. Amendment 73 includes a provision to hold the assessment rates steady just for schools for two reasons. One is that it provides property tax relief to ranchers and farmers, which the measure’s backers hope bolsters support in parts of the state that are traditionally more hostile to tax increases. The other is that it ensures the new tax revenue generated by the amendment doesn’t just backfill an ever-deepening hole in rural districts.

Residential assessment rates will continue to drop for other taxing entities, creating an even more complex system, unless the state succeeds in a more comprehensive Gallagher fix.

Don’t schools get a lot of marijuana money already?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. 

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates. Marijuana money is also set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can use to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

However, the marijuana money available to schools represents a tiny fraction of total education spending, and most of it can’t be spent on basic needs like teacher salaries or classroom materials.