Follow the money

Three answers to look for in Cuomo's budget proposal today

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to unveil his annual budget proposal this afternoon. Several important education issues are on the table.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases his budget proposal for 2013-2014 later this afternoon, education observers around the state are hoping to have many questions answered.

While Cuomo has made headway on the education policy centerpiece of last year’s budget proposal, teacher evaluations, new issues are arising — including that New York City still doesn’t have a new evaluation system. Meanwhile, there is uncertainty over how much funding districts will receive from the state now that aid increases are determined differently than in the past. And Cuomo’s competitive grants program will likely get a fair share of attention, three weeks after he announced that he would be using grants to fund a slate of ambitious — and pricey — new education programs and services.

Here are three questions that Cuomo’s budget address is likely to address:

1. How much money will there even be? That’s a question that officials at the State Education Department are grappling with from their headquarters across the street from Cuomo’s office. The answer will depend on how conservative Cuomo’s budget officials were when they calculated personal income growth, the data point used to determine how much school aid increases.

Last year’s number — 4.1 percent — was based on a five-year average of personal income growth in the state and brought in $807 million for districts in the 2012-2013 school year (total state-funded school aid for this year is $20.3 billion). But now the state has switched to a model that considers only single-year changes in personal income. That model, budget experts say, is more volatile, leading to more uncertainty in the amount of state aid available to school districts.

This year’s state aid number will could likely fall by at least $100 million, based on early projections. But it could be even lower if Cuomo decides to use a more conservative projection that James Tallon, a member of the Board of Regents, has warned about.

Tallon, chair of the Regents’ state aid subcommittee, told his colleagues last week that his staff crunched personal income growth numbers and found that personal income grew by just 3 percent last year. The difference could mean schools could receive closer to $600 million — 25 percent less than the state parceled out last year.

“The signal I want to wave at everybody is, if I just took the most negative reading of the current numbers, the governor could come in at 3 [percent], which would take me … to $600 [million],” Tallon said.

Tallon and the Regents are proposing that Cuomo stick to his early projection of 3.5 percent growth, and there is additional pressure from outside groups to do the same.

There remains the issue of whether the state is adequately funding high-need districts. The state’s highest court ruled in 2007 that those districts should get a higher share of state education funds, but after two years of increasing their funding, the state pulled back on fulfilling the mandates set out in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling. Now, advocates are threatening a second lawsuit to claim $5 billion in promised but undelivered funds. Whether that pressure has had an impact on Cuomo’s budget proposal is yet to be seen. But a plan that does not pay special attention to high-need districts is sure to stoke the ire of those who say the state is not complying with its court-ordered funding priorities.

2. How much of the money will have to be won? One of the concerns that Tallon and others at the State Education Department have is that Cuomo will continue to expand his competitive grant program at the expense of the general state aid that goes to all districts. The grants are a funding policy that he’s embraced since his first days as governor, to some dissent. As part of the program, districts apply and qualify for additional aid on the condition that they agree to spend the money in specific ways.

This year’s budget will include at least $75 million in the competitive grants, based on funding set aside in last year’s budget. But Cuomo wants to use the grants to push for a lot of ambitious programs, including early childhood education, extended learning time, and schools that partner with outside organizations to provide extracurricular, health and mental services.

The scale of his grant proposals have left some wondering if he’ll go beyond the $75 million number. “He may make it bigger at the expense of other things in the budget,” Tallon said. “I hope not. ”

It wouldn’t be the first time that Cuomo’s grants programs put him at odds with state education officials. Last year, Commissioner John King told legislators that he thought Cuomo should scale back the program and allocate more of the money to cash-strapped districts.

King, Tallon, and the rest of the Regents want Cuomo to focus the $75 million on Universal Pre-Kindergarten and leave the general state aid alone.

“We just think there is just such compelling evidence for the potential of early childhood education that we would like the state to make a big bet on that — and a multiyear bet,” Tallon said.

3. How will Cuomo deal with the teacher evaluations issue? In last year’s budget deal, Cuomo used another carrot-and-stick approach to get districts to submit teacher evaluation plans, tying increased state aid to the plans. With the exception of New York City and a handful of other districts, the strategy worked.

But it left districts awaiting a messy situation next year, when most of the plans expire and unions and districts without new contracts will have to return to the negotiating table. In his annual address earlier this month, Cuomo said he would continue to pressure districts to have new evaluations each year by withholding state aid if they don’t renegotiate their plans after they expire.

“We want to keep in the model that in order to get the additional aid, you have to continue the evaluation process,” Cuomo said. Today’s budget proposal will provide a peak of how much he’ll look to withhold for districts that do not readopt evaluation systems next year.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.