budget breakdown

Pre-K funds, charter school protections, and Common Core changes in state budget deal

Updated 1:11 p.m. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State legislature reached agreement on a new spending plan that includes $300 million in eligible pre-kindergarten funds for New York City, an effective annulment of Success Academy co-location reversals, and a process for new city charter schools to receive facilities support, according to budget documents for the education section that were posted online Saturday morning.

The deal will allow Mayor Bill de Blasio to move forward with ambitious plans to provide full-day pre-kindergarten to 70,000 four-year-olds, a signature campaign pledge and a centerpiece of his agenda four months into office. The funds won’t come through a local income tax increase on city residents, which de Blasio had preferred. But it will still provide almost all of the money that was included in his plan, which seeks to provide access to more than 50,000 students next year.

The budget will provide $1.5 billion for statewide funding over five years.

No deal was formally announced, but state officials were printing budget bills late into Friday night, a signal that stickier issues that had delayed an agreement had been ironed out. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not respond to questions seeking additional details.

The education section of the budget was not completed until after midnight, technically meaning that it missed a three-day window before an end-of-month deadline required by law. A vote must be held on Monday and lawmakers are expected back in Albany on Sunday to look over the budget’s details.

Additional details, other than the ones provided in the budget bills, have not been made immediately available. We’re combing through the bill today, but here are some other education-related aspects:

Charter schools

— The budget deal will effectively reverse de Blasio’s cancellation of three Success Academy space-sharing plans. New language in the charter school law states that any charter school co-location plan changes, approved prior to 2014, would need consent from the charter school to move forward.

— In New York City, new charter schools or schools that are approved to add grades must be “provided access to facilities” if they request a co-location inside a city-owned school building. If that’s not possible, the city must pay for a school’s rent elsewhere or pay an extra 20 percent in per–pupil funding to pay for the private facilities costs. After the city spends $40 million, the state will begin chipping in a share of the funds.

— Charter schools can’t be charged rent if they are offered space within a district-owned school building.

— Charter school funding levels will stay flat—at their 2010-2011 levels until the end of the 2016-2017 year. News of the funding freeze is what sparked many charter school advocates to do a last-minute lobbying spree this week. The state will provide all charter schools will per-pupil funding increases amounting to $500 over the same period.

— When a charter school closes, public funds that are left over will need to be paid over to the district serving its former students.

— Financial audits of New York City charter schools are authorized to be handled by the city’s comptroller. Earlier this year, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer declared that he planned to audit charter schools, a statement that at the time was built on shaky legal ground. But the law change further enshrines the comptroller’s auditing authority. The state comptroller will have the authority to financially audit charter schools outside of the city.

$2 Billion Smart Schools Bond Act

— November’s general election will include a referendum to allow the state to borrow $2 billion that districts can use to upgrade their classroom technology, add internet bandwidth, add pre-K seats and enhance school building security. In addition, New York City will be able to use some of its money to replace Transportable Classroom Units, or classroom trailers, which the State Assembly had been fighting for.

Common Core/Teacher evaluations

— Standardized tests will be banned in early grades, starting with pre-kindergarten. Districts administered the tests in recent years as a way to evaluate teachers, but they were criticized as being inappropriate for students as young as four and five years old.

— Students won’t be held from advancing to the next grade if they fail the state’s new Common Core tests. New York City was the lone district in the state that actually used test scores as a grade promotion factor, but new schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña had already signaled that she would move away from that policy.

Pre-K eligibility

— New York City pre-K programs, which will include charter schools, will be eligible for the state funds by applying to the State Education Department, which will administer a grant program based on several criteria, according to the law’s language: curriculum, learning environment, family engagement, staffing patterns, teacher education and experience, facility quality, physical well-being, and partnerships with non-profit institutions.

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getting to know you

These 10 Colorado lawmakers are rethinking how the state pays for its public schools

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Ten Colorado lawmakers, many with longstanding ties to the education community, are set to begin debating the future of Colorado’s school finance system.

The legislative group tasked with studying and making recommendations about how the state pays for public education includes former teachers and superintendents, a former State Board of Education member and a practicing charter school lawyer.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, will lead the committee during its first year.

Garnett helped establish the committee earlier this year when he co-sponsored House Bill 1340 with state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. Lundeen also will serve on the panel.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, will be the vice-chair.

The committee was formed against a backdrop of fear that the state’s schools would face deep budget cuts next school year. However, lawmakers at the last minute averted putting the state’s schools in an even deeper financial hole.

Still, lawmakers from both parties and members of the state’s education community agree the funding system is outdated and in need of a massive overhaul. The state last made significant changes to the system in 1994.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for July 24. Among its first decisions will be selecting a third-party consultant to help with research and guide discussions and decisions.

Here’s the full committee:

  • State Rep. Alec Garnett, Denver Democrat, chair
  • State Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs Republican, vice chair
  • State Sen. Janet Buckner, Aurora Democrat
  • State Sen. Bob Gardner, Colorado Springs Republican
  • State Rep. Millie Hamner, Frisco Democrat
  • State Rep. Timothy Leonard, Evergreen Republican
  • State Rep. Paul Lundeen, Monument Republican
  • State Sen. Michael Merrifield, Colorado Springs Democrat
  • State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Sterling Republican
  • State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Arvada Democrat

debating discipline

Threats, attacks and thrown chairs: DPS fields concerns about effort to reduce early childhood suspensions

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

One 6-year-old Denver student told his pregnant teacher he was going to kick her to kill her unborn baby. A first-grader tried to stab her teacher in the eye with a sharpened pencil. Another young child threw a classmate against a brick wall and gave her a concussion.

Such jaw-dropping incidents — detailed in dozens of comments submitted to Denver Public Schools in recent months — illustrate the tightrope walk district officials face as they consider a policy change that would dramatically curb suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.

Advocates hail the proposal as a key step toward early childhood discipline reform and a way to combat the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on young boys of color. But many educators are wary — saying that the district already provides too little help in managing the most explosive young students and that the new policy will only exacerbate the problem.

The policy, scheduled for a school board vote Monday, would reserve suspensions of preschool through third-grade students for “only the most severe behaviors impacting staff or student safety” and they would be limited to one day. Expulsions would be allowed only if young students bring guns to school.

Debate about the district’s new policy comes as school districts nationwide grapple with efforts to reduce racial and gender disparities in early childhood discipline, and a few months after state legislation to reduce suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade died in a Senate committee.

At a Denver school board meeting last month, at least a dozen people spoke in favor of the district’s proposed changes, including two state representatives, as well as leaders from the Denver NAACP, the Urban League, Democrats for Education Reform, and the advocacy groups Padres & Jovenes Unidos and Advocacy Denver.

They argued that suspensions don’t work to change bad behavior, that they set children back academically and increase the risk of future suspensions.

But a number of educators — even those who support the move philosophically — are skeptical.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said she worries the proposal is an example of district officials adopting a stance that “looks wonderful but doesn’t put the appropriate supports in place.”

“I have some trepidation about DPS always wanting to be the first and a ground-breaker without thinking about how it affects the classroom,” she said.

In response to an open records request from Chalkbeat, DPS provided 66 comments — with names, school names and contact information redacted — received through a special email address for public feedback about the proposed policy.

Most respondents were district staff, a few were parents and one was a district official from Pittsburgh, which is considering a moratorium on suspensions for preschool to second grade students.

Only a handful of the 66 commenters favored the proposed policy change, which would take effect for the coming school year.

One parent wrote, “As a father of two current DPS Black male students, I am writing to support the proposed policy … The current practice/policy is out of sync with the mission of DPS.”

A school psychologist also wrote in support, saying, “In much the same way that we wouldn’t attempt to expel a student who lacked essential academic knowledge or skill, we should not attempt to expel young students who lack essential behavioral knowledge or skill.”

More often, educators expressed anger, frustration and disappointment over the proposal — painting a picture of teachers, students and sometimes whole schools at the mercy of a few violent young students.

One third grade teacher wrote, “Students have no fear of breaking rules. I have had students who attack others regularly, throw chairs at students’ heads, punch students and teachers in the face, choke others, stab at necks with fists full of pencils, curse violently, run out of the school, elaborate on their plans to harm others at the school or get them to commit suicide — and those are just my students.”

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief for student equity and opportunity, said the proposed changes are targeted at eliminating suspensions for children whose behavior is “in some ways more irritating than threatening.” Children who show extremely violent or aggressive behavior could still be suspended, he said.

In the 2015-16 school year, the district suspended about 500 kids in preschool through third grade. None were expelled.

A number of DPS staff members who provided written comments said current practices — including regular lessons on social and emotional skills and efforts to use restorative justice — don’t work in the most extreme cases.

A second grade teacher wrote, “These ‘restorative’ conversations lead absolutely no where and have close to zero effect as the same students are continuing to repeat these same behaviors and they become more extreme and regular.”

But district officials say a new infusion of cash approved by voters last November will provide extra help to educators — in the form of extra staff or other services devoted to students’ mental health and social and emotional needs

Greer said $11 million from the district’s mill levy will be divvied among schools based on enrollment, number of low-income students and other factors. Principals will be able to pay school social workers, counselors or psychologists to work additional days, partner with local mental health organizations or propose other ideas, he said.

Three-quarters of district schools would receive $30,000 or more from the $11 million pot.

Shamburg said on a per-school basis it’s not much money.

Greer said, “I think it is a good chunk of support when you think an average elementary school may be able to increase by one, two or three days of mental health coverage.”

Some commenters on the proposed policy urged the district to create new specialized programs for the most challenging children or find such slots outside the district. A couple commenters who previously worked in other districts voiced their surprise at the lack of social and emotional help available in their DPS schools.

A former Aurora teacher gave a plug for universal mental health screenings. Others urged smaller class sizes and more recess time.

Some commenters — including a school social worker and school psychologist — reported instances of school staff not reporting or misreporting discipline cases to make their schools’ rates look better, and expressed concern that the practice will persist under the new policy.

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said of the assertions, “We’re not doubting that people are telling us their experiences when they give us comments.” 

Greer said the district holds monthly trainings to help administrators implement the district’s discipline policy and document discipline incidents. The district also works with Padres and Advocacy Denver to address parent concerns about inappropriate discipline reporting.

A district special education teacher wrote of mixed feelings about the proposed early childhood discipline policy: “I am happy that DPS is nationally recognized but I hope this recognition does not come at the expense of scared children, injured children and hopeless staff and personnel.”

The comments below are a selection of those submitted to the district.