Politics

New chancellor Rosa voices concerns on charters, lack of options for English learners

Photo by Geoff Decker

Chancellor Betty Rosa opened up about a range of contentious education issues during a whirlwind tour of New York City this weekend.

It is “abusive” to force some English language learners to take state tests on grade level, she said, as she pledged to be tough on charter schools that don’t enroll many high-needs students and made some of her first comments about school segregation.

The state’s top education policymaker made the comments at a forum in Washington Heights on Friday, then headed to the United Federation of Teachers spring conference on Saturday. Together, the comments offer more detail about the direction Rosa — who has already signaled she wants to depart from the policies of former Chancellor Merryl Tisch — will take New York.

Rosa on charter schools

The state education department is “very concerned” that some charter schools do not serve a population of students that represents their communities, Rosa said.

That could indicate that the Board of Regents, which has the power to approve and renew charter schools, will be paying closer attention to their demographic numbers — especially their number of English language learners, students with disabilities, and children in poverty.

Last year, there was a sizeable difference between the English Language Learner population in charter schools, which represented 6 percent of the charter student body, compared to 14 percent of all city students. That gap is smaller for students with disabilities, which make up 21 percent of district students and 16 percent of charter school students.

Those statements put Rosa in line with other charter school critics, who have long argued they do not take their “fair share” of high-needs students. The teachers union made charter school demographics one of its main legislative priorities this year.

Rosa did praise “homegrown” charter schools, which she did not define but said often act in the best interest of their communities and enroll a lot of high-needs students.

“I want my waiver”

Rosa repeated her objections to a federal policy that requires students learning English to take state assessments just one year after they enter the country. To do so is “abusive” and misses a chance to test what they have actually learned, she said.

For the past few years, New York has applied unsuccessfully for a waiver that would allow its students to skirt the policy, which federal officials say is important for ensuring that schools are being held accountable for helping vulnerable students.

“I saw [U.S. Secretary of Education] John King last week and I said, ‘I want my waiver for these children,’” Rosa said.

School segregation

School segregation needs to be fixed locally, not by the state, Rosa said.

While the chancellor acknowledged that schools in New York State are the most segregated in the country, and said she is looking into the issue, she argued the problem must be solved from the ground up.

“All these [desegregation] programs that have been mandated, many of them eventually, guess what, go back,” she said. “I believe this is one that has to be done at the local level versus being mandated,” Rosa said.

The state has made some recent efforts to encourage desegregation, though. Under former Commissioner John King, the state put $25 million toward grants that would help 20 schools experiment with reintegration efforts.

Her relationship with Elia

Rosa said she is working hard to “find common ground” with State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who has not always seen eye to eye with her on education policy.

Their working relationship got off to a bumpy start, when Rosa announced that she would have considered opting her own child out of state assessments — just as Elia had embarked on a statewide tour to convince families to take the tests.

Just after that opt-out comment, Elia sent a message to state superintendents saying the two education officials had a “productive conversation” about state tests. According to Rosa, that “shared view” is still in the works.

“As far as the commissioner is concerned, we are working very closely together to try to get to a place that we can find common ground and we can move forward,” Rosa said on Friday.

This article was first published on Chalkbeat New York on May 9.

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