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.

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.