under budget

Cuomo's school aid boost circumvents state funding formulas

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget, set out earlier this week, would distribute significant school aid in unorthodox ways, rather than through the state's regular funding formula

In some ways, Gov. Andrew Cuomo fulfilled state education officials’ wishes this week when he allocated even more money to cash-strapped school districts than they asked him to.

But Cuomo’s state aid proposal was, in another way, the worst-case scenario that the Board of Regents sketched out last week at their monthly meeting. The Regents wanted new funds to be distributed according to the state’s regular school aid formula, but Cuomo said he would dole out the increased funding according to his own rules.

Knowing that Cuomo already had allocated $75 million in grant funding for this year’s schools budget, state education officials asked him to use the entire amount to help districts expand pre-kindergarten offerings and to distribute the funds mostly to low-income districts. They asked that he put the rest of his education dollars into the foundation aid formula, which doesn’t require districts to apply and compete for funding.

Cuomo’s budget proposal did not fulfill those requests. While he dedicated the largest pot of grant funding to pre-kindergarten, he also allocated $20 million to support extended learning time and $15 million to districts that open community schools. And he proposed another round of $50 million in competitive grants from the pot of $500 million that he first announced in his first State of the State address two years ago. Districts would have to compete and show that they meet certain requirements to win the funds.

Plus, Cuomo’s proposal calls for $203 million in one-time funding for struggling districts — a move that has the education aid package looking better than last year’s on paper, but with an uncertain future.

The one-time funding, coupled with the grants, brought the increased education aid package to $889 million, or an increase of $300 per student.

“This is a significant breakthrough and I’m very pleased about it,” said Michael Rebell, a professor at Columbia University who has long pushed the state to spend more on schools, currently as executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity.

But Rebell said Cuomo’s increase in foundation aid disbursement, which at $611 million is well below last year’s $807 million sum, remained “patently unconstitutional” since it does not come close to the amount of money that a court ordered the state to spend on low-income districts six years ago.

To control spending, Cuomo has capped education spending for the last two years and tied it to the annual growth rate of personal income, which was 3 percent last year.

Rebell also serves on Cuomo’s education reform commission and he said he’s hoping to convince other members to recommend changes to state aid funding when they release their next report later this year. “Frankly, if they don’t remove the cap somebody’s going to bring a lawsuit,” said Rebell. “It might be me.”

State Education Commissioner John King and Regent Jim Tallon, who helped create SED’s state aid proposal, did not comment on Cuomo’s proposal. Tallon said he would withhold comments until February’s Board of Regents meeting.

King will be working with a mixed bag when he testifies before the legislature on Cuomo’s budget proposal. Last year, King called for less competitive grant funding and more general aid funding, and he’ll likely make the same comments this year.

King is also likely to weigh in on the $203 million that Cuomo wants to offer to school districts dealing with crippling teacher pension payments. The one-time funding, which Cuomo is calling “Fiscal Stabilization Funding,” is an unusual budget line that has left some seasoned education insiders unsure of what to think.

On the one hand, Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton said, the funding “is a testament to the burning needs that exist in the schools.” He said the aid still did not go far enough.

On the other, there remain many question marks about how the money will be spent. “We need more details on how the $203 million Fiscal Stabilization Fund will be allocated,” New York State School Superintendents Deputy Director Bob Lowry said.

State Budget Director Robert Megna said no decisions have been made about which districts will receive the funds, or how it will be distributed. He said the $203 million would be targeted to districts that are faced with the toughest budget outlooks.

A specific distribution proposal will be developed in the coming weeks as Cuomo begins his budget negotiations with the legislature. The enticement of $203 million could make for significant bargaining leverage as he strives to submit an on-time budget deal for a third consecutive year.

defensor escolar

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.