lowest common denominator

City might take special ed funding back from schools midyear

Changes meant to help schools overhaul their special education programs have instead left principals scrambling for a budget fix.

Middle and high school principals are learning this week that the Department of Education is planning to take back thousands of dollars earmarked to help their schools serve students with special needs — over a budget technicality.

“Students with disabilities are the ones who lose out in this — and schools’ ability to provide what [students] need,” said a principal whose school faces a cut.

The issue stems from a new funding formula adopted this year as part of the Department of Education’s efforts to bring students with disabilities out of self-contained classes whenever possible.

Previously, schools received funding based on the number of their students assigned to different kinds of special education classes. Students in self-contained special education classes brought one amount, while students who were pulled out of general education classes for extra help brought another. But as the department has moved to a more flexible model, where students can switch among types of settings based on their needs, the funding model had to change.

The new model allots funds based on the percentage of time students spend in each kind of special education class. Students who spend more than 60 percent of their time in Integrated Co-Teaching classes — which mix special education and general education students and have two teachers, one with special education certification — each bring their school $7,100. Students who spend less time in the classes, which are expensive to run, bring their schools fewer dollars.

Schools programmed students this year with the funding formula in mind. So many middle and high school principals were surprised this week to learn that their calculations were off and they would have to relinquish the very funds they had used to create the integrated classes this year.

Principals said they calculated that students with four Integrated Co-Teaching classes and two other classes, a common arrangement, would land solidly over the 60 percent threshold. More than half a dozen principals in four boroughs each told GothamSchools that they made the same calculation.

But they left physical education classes out of the equation. The Department of Education includes P.E. in its calculation, meaning that students with the same schedule land just short of the cutoff. Out of a schedule of seven classes, four integrated classes constitute only 57 percent of a student’s time.

Principals said they are just finding out this week about the department’s math — and the $2,000 per miscalculated student that schools might have to give back.

Some schools could lose well over $100,000 from their budgets in the middle of the year.

“No one advised us this is how this is going to play out,” said a high school principal, who added that school administrators learned about the issue on Monday during a phone call with officials from the school’s network. Other principals also reported being surprised by the potential budget crunch this week, when the Department of Education held a budget meeting for network officials.

Department officials said the budget materials that principals received this year stated clearly that only lunch should be excluded from the time calculations. They said the issue is arising now because, as part of a “data clean-up,” the department is asking schools to certify that information about students’ schedules is correct in two different places by Jan. 14.

The information in the two systems — the department’s attendance system and its new Special Education Student Information System — doesn’t always match up, principals said. They said they worry that the discrepancies could cause their schools to lose funding even for students who do hit the 60 percent requirement.

“Your school will not receive funding for student services that are not properly coded,” this week’s Department of Education bulletin cautioned principals.

Because any adjustments would come in the middle of the year, principals could not cut teachers, even though that’s what the special education funds were used to pay for. Instead, they would have to slash everything else.

“It could be a real disaster,” said one person who works in a city school.

Department of Education officials said principals could appeal the take-backs.

“We understand that some principals may have concerns about their school’s budget and we will make sure to address those on a case by case basis and ultimately do what is right and fair for the students,” said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman.

But some principals said they thought the department should simply round up, at least for this year. They said so many schools are likely to be affected that the adjustments will amount to, in effect, a systemwide budget cut, without a tidy number to make headlines. (Like all city agencies, the Department of Education was ordered in September to reduce its spending for the year.)

They also said reaching the 60 percent threshold in the future would also be a challenge, because adding additional integrated classes is both expensive and impractical. Many students who need help from a special education teacher in their academic classes can succeed in other subjects without them, principals said. And they said it doesn’t make sense to assign a special education teacher to physical education classes unless there are students whose disability is physical, a relative rarity.

Several principals also noted that the schools that face the largest cuts are the ones that strive to enroll students with disabilities and also include them in integrated classes — exactly what the Department of Education wants schools to do.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!

money matters

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

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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.