Sunday, July 5, 2020

Where is DOE stashing $400 million in savings from cancelled busing this year?

Ever since April, when I saw that the DOE was asking the Panel for Educational Policy to approve  retroactive extensions of the busing contracts for March costing $180M,  to be automatically renewed in April for about the same amount, I've been concerned about why they were intent on spending these funds despite the fact that there has been no school busing since March 15, when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

The waste involved was even more astonishing, considering that the DOE will be facing big budget cuts next year, which will severely hamper the ability of NYC schools to provide the health and safety protections as well as educational and emotional support that students will need.

The DOE argued that, for some reason, they were obligated to renew the busing contracts through the end of the year, but would only pay 85% , which is apparently the savings they receive on snow days.

This didn't make any sense to me, given that these were contract extensions, with no legal obligations involved, and moreover, that in most contracts there is a provision called "force majeure" meaning the contract could be rendered null and void in case of a real emergency, including an epidemic.  
Sure enough, the City Controller wrote a letter to the DOE on April 17, pointing this out and asking, "Given the extreme budgetary pressures faced by the City amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it would seem contrary to all sense of fiscal prudence that the City would continue to pay for services that can no longer be rendered for the remainder of the school year. Every dollar must be leveraged to respond to our current public health crisis and to offset other proposed cuts to city schools."
The next thing I knew, DOE had taken the vote to extend the busing contracts for March and April off  the PEP agenda, and they haven't reappeared since.  Neither has there been any mention of extending the contracts for May or June.
And yet there are no DOE budget savings from busing listed in the final adopted budget documents on the OMB website for FY 2020, though $50 million is listed in savings for FY 2021, because of cancelled busing for summer school classes.
Assuming $180 million per month in savings, for the three and a half months the schools were shut from March 15 through the end of June, that could total as much as $540 million.
However, the DOE did not immediately stop paying the bus companies in mid-March -- even though the PEP never voted to renew their contracts for that month or the month of April. 
According to the Daily News, the DOE did not stop paying the bus companies until the first week in May, and then apparently stopped reimbursing them for the busing that never happened in April; that's also when the bus drivers stopped getting paid by the bus companies as well. 
I looked up what the savings have been on CheckbookNYC, a handy website run by the NYC Comptroller's office that tracks spending by city agencies.  
Sure enough, DOE spending for student transportation in May amounted to only $879,000 and $5.4 million in June, compared to $124.7 million in Jan., $  154.4 million in Feb.,  $121.7 million in March, and $141.1 million in April.  
Interestingly, payments from April 1-15 were nearly $136 million, but far less during the second half of the month,  at only about $6 million, which was after the Comptroller sent his letter on April 17 and Sue Edelman did a story on the controversy on April 18 in the NY Post.
In any case, with the average DOE monthly spending on busing per month for January, February and March of about  $134 million, the savings from  cancelling the contracts for April, May and June should total nearly $400 million.  Yet this amount is nowhere reflected in the OMB documents for DOE savings for this year, which instead list unspecified savings in all categories of only $200 million for FY 2020-- and which should include energy, leases, supplies, consultants, professional development, and more, which likely experienced considerable reductions since schools were closed in mid-March.
More mysteries: 

1- Why was the PEP asked to approve emergency busing extensions of $180 million for March when the most spent on busing in any month, according to CheckbookNY anyway,  is only about $154 million?  
2- Why did the DOE spend anything for busing in May and June?
3- When the June expenses of more than $5 million are examined closely, the vast majority of payments went to companies that transport Yeshiva students.  Yet Yeshivas, like public schools, are supposed to be closed.  The usual payments to these companies (which are not even included in the contracts that the PEP votes upon) cost the DOE about $5 million per month, according to CheckbookNYC, which is between three and four percent of the DOE's total spending on busing in a normal month.  
Yet for the months of May and June, the percentage spent on Yeshiva bus companies ballooned to 71-72% of the total amount DOE spent on busing, with nearly $4 million paid to these bus companies on June 29 alone.  Why did these payments continue and indeed increase in June?

In any case the lack of transparency around this issue is distressing, with the City Council apparently allowing DOE to stash away at least $400 million.  Instead of accounting for these savings which might have prevented the cuts to staffing and essential programs next year, these funds could presumably be used instead on consultants, to sustain the DOE's inflated bureaucracy, or on really anything else. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Update on final NYC budget and what it means for our schools

Whether the budget that was just passed by the City Council was a good one or not depends on whether you’re looking at the glass half empty or half full.

According to the Council press release, they negotiated the restoration of $100 million in proposed cuts to Fair Student Funding, $11.6 million for the Single Shepherd guidance counselors, $4.8 million for 38 social workers, and $1.8 million for other social-emotional supports for students. The new arrangement also puts School Safety Agents under the authority of the DOE for the first time since Giuliani placed them under NYPD control in 1998, though Mayor de Blasio says the shift will be a gradual, two-year process.

Many significant budget cuts remain, as well as a staffing freeze of teachers and counselors, and it is difficult to know how schools will reopen safely and with adequate support to students given these conditions. See the chart below – adapted from an earlier chart from the City Council– approximating the cuts that appear to remain (aside from an extra $6.6M for social workers and other so far unspecified social-emotional supports):

At the same time, much larger cuts of several billion dollars may occur, leading to actual layoffs if the state doesn’t receive more funding from the feds and/or doesn’t provide more aid via higher taxes on the wealthy and/or the Mayor doesn’t manage to negotiate givebacks from the unions.

And all this is happening in the midst of a pandemic which will necessitate costly measures to protect the safety and health of students and staff, no less create the smaller classes required for social distancing if schools reopen in the fall. A recent analysis from the School Superintendents Association revealed that school districts can expect to spend an additional $490 per student just to purchase cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, as well as hire more custodial staff and nurses. That means the cost to NYC schools could amount to nearly $500 million.

Speaker Corey Johnson did mention during his press conference that they achieved some significant savings from the cancellation of the bus contracts in April, which we strongly advocated for when it appeared that the DOE was intent on going ahead with these contracts despite the fact that there was no busing happening since schools were closed in mid-March. The cancellation of these contracts should lead to savings of over $600 million, which theoretically could have prevented any cuts to school budgets and instead help pay for additional staffing and health measures -- though clearly that didn’t happen.

In any case, we have to continue pushing for the federal government, as well as state and city officials, to do the right thing for our students, rather than allow them to be endangered by educational and medical neglect.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Parents: Google Classroom is not your friend


Cross posted at the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy blog. The following is by Carrie McLaren, a Brooklyn parent. If others have similar experiences with Chromebooks, please let us know at info@studentprivacymatters.org


A couple of years ago, my then-4th grade son started watching YouTube videos about Magic, a trading card game. These were snoozy, lo-tech commentaries that struck me as quasi-educational. But I soon noticed that YouTube's algorithm would start recommending more and more "engaging" videos — a video of white gamer known for dropping the N-word, for instance.

A close friend noticed the same thing happening with her teen. The boy watches videos about American history and started slowly being fed conspiratorial, alt.right nonsense. The racism was not intended on Google’s part. It’s simply the formula we’ve seen all over media platforms: big emotions + edgy content = more engagement. YouTube is in the center of the attention economy, after all, and YouTube's goal is to keep users watching YouTube.

This economic imperative doesn't end with Google Classroom. Classroom is just another piece of Google's data-mining machine. Why school districts are so eager to jump on board the platform is hard to fathom were it not so cheap and convenient. But as anyone with a passing familiarity with Big Tech knows, you get what you pay for. When the tech is free, you are the product.

Prior to distance learning, my son had a Chromebook that he could log into via his gmail account, which we could monitor via Google's parent controls, Family Link. Once we started distance learning, he needed to login via his school's gmail. But these Classroom accounts are not subject to Google's parent control. So, thanks to Google Classroom, my son could log into his Chromebook using his school account and potentially access porn sites, spend the day watching YouTube and ads hawking age-inappropriate games, or do pretty much anything else on the internet, unguarded.

Odd, yes? Chromebooks are often sold as the ideal student laptop. When I contacted Google about this (6/17/20), the customer service rep said it's the school's responsibility to limit adult sites and other distractions, not Google's. But schools can only limit devices linked to their individual network; they cannot do this when students are working from home.

When I expressed concern about limitless YouTube during the home/school day, the Google customer service rep told me not to worry: "Students can't use YouTube via their school account."

I laughed at this because my son's YouTube use amped up dramatically when he started relying on his school gmail account. Google's subterfuge here runs deep. It's true that a student cannot "like" or comment on YouTube videos via a student account. Nor can they view their watch history. But they can watch as many YouTube videos as they like. And just because they can't view their own watch history doesn't mean Google isn't tracking that watch history! Whenever my kid would open a YouTube browser, the home page would be highly tailored to his interests, luring him down a rabbit hole expertly tuned to keep him hooked.

If I want to limit my son's internet access during distance learning, I need to get rid of the Chromebook and use a different laptop (Apple and Microsoft have parental controls that can function with Classroom).

Or invest in expensive network-based parent controls, such as Circle. Or, I suppose, I can stop using Google Classroom and give up on school.

Is anyone at the NYC Department of Education thinking about this? Anyone at all?

- - - Parents, one trick I've fallen back on is go into settings and delete my son’s Watch History, Search History, and turn off targeted Advertising. I then turned off Watch & Search history by putting them on Pause. These changes make the site a little less addicting and more diverse.

—Carrie McLaren

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Budget cuts at NYC Department of Education may threaten student privacy

Also posted at the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

The following was written by a concerned stakeholder who prefers to stay anonymous.  One wonders if the budget savings involved in DOE's decision to cut the only part-time staff assistant vetting research proposals is worth risking student privacy.

NYC public school students are diverse demographically, culturally, linguistically, and academically and there are a wide variety of programs established to meet their needs. The NYC Department of Education Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews over 500 research proposals every year, many of which aim to evaluate these programs and test new curriculums.  A large portion of these proposals target the most vulnerable NYC DOE students and families.

An IRB is an administrative body that is formally designated to review human subject research proposals, to protect the rights of those individuals who are recruited to participate in research activities.  For most people, the mention of an IRB conjures images of drug trials or medical treatment research.  However, IRBs don’t solely exist for biomedical research. Social science research that collects personal information about participants is also subject to IRB review, and education research is no exception.

Historically, the NYC DOE IRB Board has been supported by only one full-time Director and only one part-time consultant who are tasked with initial review of all submitted proposals, communication with the research community, as well as oversight and compliance monitoring. In addition, there are two Boards made of up 30 volunteers who vet the proposals after the initial review by staff. Comparable institutions reviewing the same volume and type of research normally have between 3-5 full-time administrative support staff to perform initial reviews and support Board members (aahrpp.org).

Faced with a projected deficit in the billions of dollars, the NYC DOE has opted to eliminate the one part-time IRB assistant position, which will reduce the DOE’s ability to thoroughly review the research studies being proposed and could open the doors to a whole host of privacy and confidentiality breaches.

Proposed studies submitted to the NYC DOE IRB may ask questions regarding family immigration status, financial hardship, experiences with abuse or neglect, sexual practices of children, drug and alcohol use and abuse, and physical or learning disabilities or challenges or more. Researchers also frequently request extensive FERPA-protected student records including disciplinary and suspension data. The NYC DOE IRB is the sole DOE body that reviews these requests and ensures that inappropriate questions – including immigration status -- are removed before the study is approved and introduced to students and families.

In reviewing these proposals, the IRB ensures, among other things, that:
  • The risks to students and families are minimized by using procedures that do not unnecessarily expose the research participants to risk.
  • The selection of students and families for research participation is equitable.
  • Research participants are adequately informed of the risks that will be involved in the research.
  • The research plan, when appropriate, makes adequate provisions for monitoring the data collected to ensure the safety of the subjects.
  • There are adequate provisions to protect the privacy of the research subjects and to maintain the confidentiality of the data.
  • Appropriate additional safeguards have been included in the study to protect the rights and welfare of research subjects who are likely to be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence (e.g., children, non-English speakers, undocumented, economically or educationally disadvantaged persons).
Absent NYC DOE IRB review and oversight, many of these research studies could move forward with limited safeguards for NYC DOE students and families.

The NYC DOE IRB’s historic commitment to student privacy and ethical research must be preserved. Due to COVID-19 and the shift to online learning, access to students is now being sought via telecommunication platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets, and online classroom platforms such as Google Classroom. Much sensitive data detailed previously are now being collected using these platforms.

Faced with an avalanche of research proposals focused on the impact the pandemic and the shift to remote learning, the NYC DOE IRB is needed now more than ever to combat against big data research and the exploitation of public school students for profit. It is with these concerns in mind that this institutional cornerstone requires a revamp involving an influx of resources, and support.
Those who care about student privacy should be outraged with the NYC DOE’s shortsighted and nonchalant decision to cut staff from an institutional entity whose mission is to protect 1.1+ million students’ privacy.

It is with this dire call to action that we hope the NYC DOE will reconsider the elimination of the IRB assistant and do everything in their power to promote the mission of the IRB, make strides to advance its current means and abilities, and safeguard it from future crises. Appeals can be sent to the Office of the Chancellor (NYCChancellor@schools.nyc.gov ) and the office of the Chief Academic Officer, Linda P. Chen (LChen39@schools.nyc.gov).

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Send a letter TODAY to NYC Council Speaker & leaders that school budgets must be increased, not cut

Update:  According to insiders, the Mayor is being stubborn and insisting on school budget cuts.  Please send this separate letter to the Mayor and Chancellor today!. 

Please send a letter to the NYC Council  Speaker Corey Johnson today and the Education and Finance Council chairs to say that the DOE budget should NOT be cut next year, as the Mayor has proposed; but instead, school funding should be increased so they can hire more teachers, counselors, nurses, custodial staff as well as purchasing the supplies to ensure that our children can go back to school safely next year and with the full academic and social-emotional support they will need.

The City Council is in the final stretches of negotiating a city budget for next year. Meanwhile, the Mayor proposed a 3% cut in the overall DOE budget next year, with more than $280 million of cuts directed towards schools. And yet it is clear that schools will need more funding not less next year to create the health and safety precautions, as well as the smaller classes needed for social distancing and enhanced instruction.

A recent cost analysis from the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials shows that school districts can expect to spend an additional $490 per student just to purchase hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other cleaning supplies, gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment, and hiring additional custodial staff and nurses to ensure health and safety. Given that NYC has more than one million public school students, that means that nearly $490 million alone may be required.

And that’s not counting the additional teachers necessary to provide instruction either remotely or in-person, and extra counselors to offer the emotional support, so critical given the disruption and distress that so many students have experienced during the Covid pandemic.

While Council members announced that while they are intent on negotiating a $1 billion cut to the police budget, they hadn’t yet decided where the savings would go. Clearly a big chunk will be directed to restore cuts to the summer youth jobs, but a large portion should go directly toward schools to pay for additional teachers, counselors and other staffing, as well as health and safety measures that will be critical for NYC school children next year.

Please send a letter now by clicking here, before it’s too late.

Thanks!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Talk out of School podcast on charter schools getting PPP funds and how teachers and parents should talk to kids about race and racism

This morning on the Talk out of School podcast on WBAI, I spoke to Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, about their research on charter schools that applied for funds under the Payroll Protection Program,  meant for struggling small businesses. Then Takiema Bunche-Smith, executive director of Bank Street College's Center on Culture, Race, and Equity, joined us with advice for teachers and parents on how to discuss race and racism with kids.

Please listen and check out the resources below.  You can also subscribe to the podcast here.



Charter schools and the Payroll Protection Program
Carol Burris and Marla Kilfoyle, Did some charter schools double-dip in federal coronavirus relief funding?, Washington Post
Erica Green, Charter Schools, Some With Billionaire Benefactors, Tap Coronavirus Relief, NY Times
Network for Public Education, What do you think? Are charter schools public schools or small businesses?
Email info@networkforpubliceducation.org if you discover that charter schools in your community have applied for or received PPP funds.

Resources about race and racism in schools and the larger society
Center on Culture, Race and Equity:  Equity & Culturally Responsive Resources and Black Lives Matters at Schools Symposium
Imani Perry, Racism is Terrible. Blackness is Not, Atlantic
Howard Zinn,  A People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn,  A Young People’s History of the United States
Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race
Shawn Ginwright, The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement, Medium

Saturday, June 13, 2020

In the midst of its budget crisis, DOE asks the PEP to approve six million dollars for Pearson



UPDATE 6.18.20: Approval of the contract extension of the Pearson Gifted test has been removed from the PEP agenda for tonight.

Amid the Covid pandemic which will require smaller classes and new health and safety measures,  and despite huge proposed cuts to schools next year, DOE is asking the Panel for Educational Policy to approve six million dollars to be awarded Pearson at its Thursday, June 18 meeting (though the meeting is wrongly dated on the list of proposed contracts as Wed. June 17.)
Of that six million dollars, $1.7 million is for a one -year extension of Pearson's controversial assessment to test four-year-old children for their “giftedness” – a standardized exam which many experts say has little reliability or validity, and is highly correlated with race and class.  
Another $4.8 million is to be awarded Pearson for a one-year extension to its SchoolNET platform, used to administer  interim assessments and report scores.  
The document that lists these contracts, known as the RA for Request for Authorization, reveals that in 2016, DOE asked the NYC  Technology Development Corporation (NYCTDC), to  recommend an alternative, and they recommended that this be outsourced  to another vendor, “as the DOE did not have the internal resources and/or expertise to develop, maintain, and continuously enhance an assessment platform to meet its needs, particularly given the number of external solutions readily available assessment platform to meet the needs for a formative assessment platform.”

At the recommendation of the NYCTDC, DOE released a new RFP for an assessment platform in March 2018, more than two years, ago, with multiple responses from vendors, but apparently even in that space of time they have been unable to settle  on another one – though they say they will come back to the PEP with an alternative proposal sometime in the future; meanwhile, they  say they needed to extend this contract with Pearson for another year.  

Both Pearson proposals include more than two pages of problems with Pearson that DOE found out about the company via a "background check," including 34 investigations for discrimination against its employees on grounds of race, disability, gender, age, etc. and many technical issues with erroneous scoring,  online service disruptions and more.   


At the same time, this list is far from comprehensive, and omits many Pearson scandals,  including the infamous Pineapple passage on the 8th grade ELA exam, which had bewildered and stressed students in several states since 2007, until it finally was exposed as so absurd to be unanswerable in the New York exam in 2012 and removed from scoring.   
Nor does the DOE list mention the fiasco the following year, when Pearson wrongly scored the results of thousands of NYC children on the gifted exam.  
Here's a more complete list of Pearson errors through 2013 , published in the Washington Post, and another through 2016.  I guess DOE contract officers don't know how to use google.
DOE also proposing that the PEP approve a 4 month, $5 million emergency extension for a contract with Prutech that would run from May 14 through August, for various COVID-related tasks including student portal development, although last month, the PEP already approved a $1.8 million emergency contract with  Prutech to go through June 30, which also included student portal development.
Prutech designed the godawful DOE website which is so unusable that it you cannot find the documents you’re looking for through its search function, and the URLs on the website are so difficult to share that I have to download docs like this month's RA, upload them my Class Size Matters site and share that URL for people to be able to find them. 
If people want to email the PEP members about these contracts, their email addresses are to the right and below under Panel for Educational Policy info; you can also attend the PEP meeting remotely via https://learndoe.org/pep/june18 and sign up to speak from 5:30PM until 6:15 PM on that date..