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.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.