the ask

Democrats push Cuomo for more school aid

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton speaks at a press conference.

ALBANY — Before more thorny education issues divide them, lawmakers are presenting a unified front to Gov. Andrew Cuomo over state funding for public schools.

More than 80 Democrats in the state Assembly and Senate from Buffalo to New York City have signed a letter urging Cuomo to increase the state’s education spending by $1.9 billion in the 2014-2015 budget. The amount, which would amount to a 9 percent increase over this year, is far more than Cuomo has signaled he will call for in his budget proposal, which he will unveil to the legislature later this month.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has not championed big funding increases through his first four years in office, instead pressing districts to use their existing allocations more efficiently. The approach came largely as his administration confronted the aftereffects of the 2009 economic recession, which brought a total of $2 billion in state school aid cuts.

Between 2010 and 2012, schools across the state cut 35,000 teachers and staff as a result of the reduced funding, according to the Alliance for Quality Education, which organized a press conference to announce the letter.

And even though the legislature resumed funding increases two years ago, advocates say it hasn’t been enough to keep up with growing classroom costs and local mandates, let alone restore funding to its pre-recession levels. AQE has argued that at least $1.9 billion — the figure legislators called for today — is needed to restore the state to pre-recession funding levels.

In New York City, the recession brought several years of budget cuts, and schools reduced staff, increased class sizes, and trimmed arts and extracurricular programs. But unlike in many districts, no teachers were laid off, despite threats from the Bloomberg administration. Instead, the city assumed responsibility from the state for a larger share of its $24 billion budget to make up for the cuts. (The city got $364 in additional school aid last year, compared to $616 million in 2007.)

The letter’s signees represent a large swath of the state’s public education system, including rural, urban and suburban schools. More than 50 of the lawmakers represent schools in New York City.

Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who chairs the education committee, argued that a surplus that Cuomo recently reported in his mid-year financial projections is evidence enough that the darkest of days are behind public schools in the state and that it’s time to fully restore school budgets.

“We’re not in the same fiscal crisis we were in in 2008, and I think it’s time to move forward on that larger pot,” Nolan said after a press conference with more than a dozen lawmakers who signed the letter.

Cuomo has indicated that he would be willing to increase school aid by about 5 percent, although only a fraction of that would go toward the general pot of funds that Nolan and other prefer. Nolan said the general funds, from which more money goes to poor school districts, is the most fair way to disburse funding in the state.

But it’s also a departure from the way Cuomo has tended to prefer funding education during his first term. Cuomo has embraced competitive grants, including $75 million added to last years budget, that districts can qualify for only if they promise to adopt certain policies or programs. The grants are funding community schools, pre-kindergarten, expanding school days, and merit pay for top-performing teachers.

Nolan said she supported Cuomo’s grants, but not at the expense of less general funding.

“This is about … putting money in the large pot, not so that state ed can pick and choose” which districts they prefer over another, said Nolan, “but that every child in every district get a fair share.”

A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment about the letter.

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.