tech crunch

Cuomo wants N.Y. voters to approve $2 billion for school technology

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address today in Albany.

If Andrew Cuomo has his way, voters will do more this fall than reelect him to a second term as governor of New York State. They’ll also approve a $2 billion bond to pay for classroom technology costs that could balloon in coming years.

The proposal was among the most substantial schools-related offerings in Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State speech today. Nestled among proposals to expand pre-kindergarten and give bonuses to top-rated teachers, the technology proposal also reflected the most specificity about funding.

Under the plan, voters would let state borrow $2 billion that would go directly toward making schools wireless, buying tablets and wired whiteboards, and expanding programs that allow students to use technology to learn at their own pace.

The purchases would come at a time when the state’s anticipated move toward online testing aligned to new Common Core standards promises to put new pressures on schools’ technology infrastructure. Schools are also increasingly turning to “blended learning,” which includes some work done online, to tailor instruction to individual students.

So far, Cuomo said, some schools and districts have been able to keep up with the changes, while poorer school districts are being left behind.

“There are some schools where there are sophisticated new computer systems starting in first grade,” Cuomo said. “There are some schools where the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector that you walk through on your way to the classroom.”

He added, “If you aren’t on the information superhighway it can leave you behind at a hundred miles per hour.”

The $2 billion bond, called “Smart Schools,” would need to be put up to a referendum, much like the casino construction referendum that was passed during last year’s election. First, however, the state would need to pass legislation to allow it to put it up for a vote.

“Let’s go to the people of this state,” Cuomo said. “Let’s go to them in November. Let’s put on the ballot a bond referendum for the Smart Schools initiative.”

Cuomo was far less specific about how he would fund other education initiatives floated during the speech. As anticipated, he endorsed the idea of expanding access to full-day pre-kindergarten throughout the state, but he did not say where the funds to cover “truly universal” pre-K would come from. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting in the audience, has proposed an income tax hike on the city’s highest earners to pay for pre-K expansion, a plan that Cuomo has reportedly rejected.

Cuomo also reprised ideas for competitive grants to school districts to retain high-performing teachers expand career-oriented schools that are like Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School.

Cuomo also said he would propose legislation to require state education officials to notify law enforcement agencies if they are made aware of any religious or racial perception in schools. He said the fact that state officials learned about alleged anti-Semitism in the upstate Pine Bush district from a New York Times report had prompted him to act.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here: