state of the state

Cuomo proposes two new Race to the Top-style grants for NY

010511-cuomo-sots
Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed two new competitive education grants during his State of the State address today.

Two more Races to the Top could be coming to New York — this time courtesy of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In his first State of the State speech today, Cuomo proposed creating two new competitive grant funds for state school districts, worth $250 million each.

The first grant would reward districts that boost students’ academic performance. The second would go to districts that find ways to cut costs that don’t affect the classroom.

It’s not yet clear if the addition of the grant competitions would alter the state’s current formula-based education model. But the governor was critical of the model, which he said gives districts no incentives to improve.

“Competition works,” Cuomo said, pointing to the state legislature’s passage of a charter cap lift bill as part of its (eventually successful) bid to win Race to the Top funds.

Cuomo’s plan would follow the lead of the federal government, which the governor said has “actually been more innovative in this area.” The U.S. Department of Education still doles out most of its money to states according to formulas, but under President Barack Obama has also begun granting billions of dollars based on the outcomes of competitions.

The state’s current formula — set after a landmark court win by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in 2007 — doles out funds to school districts based on the number of students each serves. The formula gives districts more money for serving impoverished students, those learning English, and other high-needs students.

Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said that the governor should tread carefully in building an incentive-based funding model.  “I think the notion of moving away from a formula is very dangerous, actually,” she said.

Heavily impoverished school districts — which tend to rely more on state funds than districts with wealthy tax bases — have already taken disproportionate hits in their funding because of state cuts, Palast said. She argued that changes to the state funding formula must be made with an eye toward ensuring an equal starting line for needy students.

“I’m not opposed to incentives; I think incentives are great,” she said. “But they have to be incentives on top of provisions in the law that provide for kids’ basic needs.”

Cuomo will not be the first governor to call for tying education funding to accountability measures. When former Governor Eliot Spitzer entered office, he promised to tie a pool of funds won through the CFE lawsuit to districts’ efforts to introduce a handful of innovations such as reducing class size and lengthening the school day.

But the state’s accountability program, known as Contracts for Excellence, failed to accomplish several of its goals. Class size in New York City, for example, has increased, and critics continue to contend that the city has used the money it received through the settlement not towards reducing class size, but rather to partially backfill money lost through system-wide budget cuts.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”