financial aid

Assembly spending plan includes statewide pre-K funds, extra $1 billion for schools

Legislative leaders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's State of the State speech in January.

The Assembly’s budget proposal will boost school funding by nearly $1 billion for this school year and includes an extra $100 million for statewide prekindergarten services, according to details released Wednesday morning by Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office.

The statewide funding stream is on top of the Assembly’s proposed personal income tax on New York City residents earning more than $500,000. The surcharge would yield the $530 million in annual revenue that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he needs to fund pre-K and after-school programs.

The proposal represents part of the budget framework that Silver will bring to the table as negotiations get underway with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate co-leaders Republican Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference head Jeff Klein. The Assembly’s education plan spotlights some of the key differences that will have to be sorted out between now and the end of the month, when lawmakers are expected to sign off on a final budget.

One difference is on state aid. The Assembly’s aid increase of $970 million exceeds Cuomo’s executive budget by more than $400 million. More specifically, much of Cuomo’s increase was targeted at paying back $2.7 billion that was cut from schools through the Gap Elimination Adjustment back in 2010. But he did not include any money for a different funding mechanism, known as Formula Aid, which distributes aid based on student need and how capable a district is of raising its own local revenue. The Assembly’s budget includes $335 million in foundation aid and $367 million toward the GEA, which is about $50 million more than Cuomo’s proposal.

Another is on pre-K funding. Cuomo has said repeatedly he will oppose de Blasio’s tax and Skelos yesterday said the plan was “dead two months ago.” The Assembly’s statewide pre-K proposal matches Cuomo’s proposal, however.

The increase falls short of what more than 80 Democrats in both houses and funding advocates say is needed for cash-strapped school districts. A group of lawmakers and advocates, including Education Chair Catherine Nolan, have said that schools need an extra $1.9 billion to make up for severe cuts made during the economic recession have said that schools need an extra $1.9 billion to make up for severe cuts from the economic recession.

The Assembly’s spending plan for education totals $22.2 billion, a 6.2% increase over last year’s budget. The increase is more in line with what the $1 billion total that the state Board of Regents is asking for.


The plan is the largest increase in education funding in five years and is part of a four-year proposal to increase state aid by $1 billion annually.

“We simply cannot let any child slip through cracks of an under-funded and neglected educational system,” Speaker Silver said in a statement.

Nolan, who had formally asked for more money, said in a statement that the increase nonetheless “addresses the funding challenges that many school districts face across the state, all the while ensuring that each and every child is given the same chance at a bright and successful future.”

The proposal includes some of what Cuomo has prioritized in his executive budget proposal. In fact, it will expand Cuomo’s $2 billion Smart School Bond Act by $317 million, which would be set aside for non-public schools and districts.

Other highlights of the Assembly’s budget, per the Speaker’s office:

— $14.3 million to restore funding for Teacher Resources and Computer Training Centers

— $6 million for aid to nonpublic schools as well as an additional $5 million for prior year claims for the Comprehensive Attendance Policy programs

— $2 million for Library Aid

— $1.5 million for the Consortium for Worker Education.

— $1 million for Bilingual Education Grants

— $1 million for Adult Literacy Education

— $475,000 for the Executive Leadership Institute.

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.