From the Statehouse

Senate’s budget favors charter schools, steers less funding to NYC

The state Senate’s spending plan makes clear that its priorities still lie with boosting charter schools.

The Senate’s budget proposal, the highlights of which were released on Wednesday, accepts Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to allow 100 more charter schools to open statewide. It would also increase funding for charter schools by $225 per student next year, even more than Cuomo’s budget would. (Cuomo proposed a $75 per-student increase from the $13,777 per student allotted this year.)

But it doesn’t include any legislative fireworks, either. Last year, the Senate’s budget proposal included a package of new, pro-charter school bills, many of which eventually became law.

The state constitution gives the governor more power over the budgeting process than the Senate or the Assembly, but the two houses’ proposals are meant to be a starting point for negotiations that will take place over the next three weeks. The Assembly released its version earlier this week.

The Senate proposed spending an additional $1.9 billion more in overall school aid, exceeding both Cuomo’s proposal, which tops out at an $1.1 billion addition, and the Assembly’s $1.8 billion addition. But while the Assembly’s money specifically targets school districts with many poor students, such as New York City, more of the Senate’s increase would go toward suburban and upstate school districts, where the Senate’s Republican leaders are based.

The Senate’s budget also includes a bill that would allow corporations and individuals to receive hefty tax credits on specific donations to public and private schools. Qualifying donations up to $1 million would receive a 90 percent tax credit, and total donations up to $300 million would be split between scholarships to cover tuition at private schools — which critics see as a backdoor voucher program — and public school foundations like New York City’s Fund for Public Schools.

A brief outline of the Senate’s proposal does not mention mayoral control for New York City. The Assembly wants to extend it by seven years, while the governor wants only a three-year extension.

State leaders have said this week that they hope to finalize the budget by April 1, when the next fiscal year begins. But Cuomo’s sweeping education policy and ethics reform proposals have also frustrated lawmakers who say the governor is overreaching.

Like the Assembly, the Senate is also expected to scrap several other policy reforms that Cuomo is proposing in his budget, suggesting that weeks of negotiations are ahead.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”