March 17, 2016
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia
New York State Education Department
Education Building Room 111
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, New York 12234
Dear Commissioner Elia:
We are very concerned about the State Education Department’s (SED) recent action that removed about half of the schools -- 70 schools -- from the state’s failing schools transformation program. We believe this action violates the law, and if not immediately reversed we will explore all available remedies.
Chapter 56 of the Laws of 2015 created a turnaround and receivership structure for schools that had been failing students for more than three years and more than ten years, respectively. One hundred and forty four schools qualified as failing in the initial law and those schools were locked into the requirements of the law. The only way to avoid being put into receivership was demonstrable improvement in their academic performance through state-approved improvement plans.
However, subsequently issued regulations appear to contradict the law, allowing 70 of the failing schools on the initial list to be removed from the receivership law without demonstrating sufficient improvement. Indeed, the Department removed these schools from the list before completion of any of the improvement plans.
The law is unambiguous and provides no mechanism for these schools to come off of the list other than through improvement as defined pursuant to goals set forth in individual school improvement plans and measured at the end of the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. New schools can be added to the list in future years, but no school can be removed without meeting the statutory requirements for improvement.
Incredibly, SED also informed schools removed from the list that they remain eligible for a $75 million fund established specifically for failing schools subject to the receivership law. We believe this decision also violates the law.
More importantly, the action by SED defies common sense. Here are some examples of schools that were taken off the list:
- At a middle school in Syracuse last year, only 8 percent of students were proficient on the ELA exam and only 7 percent of students were proficient in Math.
- At 15 of the 16 schools with grades 3-8 in New York City that were removed from the list, an average of 8 percent of students were proficient on the ELA and Math exams.
- At a high school in Buffalo last year, only 44 percent of students graduated in four years and it had a drop-out rate of 34 percent.
There are thousands of students attending these schools who deserve a better opportunity to get a quality education. Removing schools that have only a handful of students achieving proficiency from the receivership list does a disservice to children. The intent of the receivership law was to provide critically necessary support to schools, support that children in those schools will now be denied.
We ask the Department to immediately restore the 70 schools to the failing schools program. We expect you will take appropriate action or we will have to explore all available remedies to ensure compliance with the law.