hail mary

Cuomo throws support behind tax credits for private school scholarships

PHOTO: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Buffalo to tout a tax credit proposal that would support families afford tuition for private schools.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal to expand school choice extends beyond charter schools to private and parochial schools, options that could alter the city’s complex student enrollment patterns.

Cuomo spent Tuesday with Cardinal Timothy Dolan advocating for tax credits that would finance full or partial tuition to nonpublic schools for students from less-affluent families.The proposal, a version of which was cut out of an education deal decided along with the state budget in April, is the latest effort by Cuomo to promote schools that aren’t within the traditional school system and has a better chance than ever of making it into law.

Teachers unions and many lawmakers oppose the plan, which they see a way to direct taxpayer dollars away from public schools. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has blocked the bill from coming up for a vote in both of the last two years.

But shifting political dynamics mean that the proposal could have a better chance of passing this year. Among the Assembly Democrats who supported the last version of the legislation is new Speaker Carl Heastie, who took the leadership post in January after Sheldon Silver stepped down amid a corruption scandal. Cuomo’s support indicates that the plan will be part of negotiations over extending mayoral control of New York City schools and raising the state’s charter school cap during the legislative session’s final months.

In New York City, 242,000 students attended nonpublic schools, 19 percent of the student population, according to the Independent Budget Office. But enrollment in Catholic schools has been trending downward for years.

“This would be something that would significantly help many of those schools and many of those schools are in my district,” said Queens Democrat David Weprin, a Democrat who sponsored the bill with Heastie.

The bill, which has not yet formally been introduced, would establish tax credits that would finance four statewide education programs. Individuals or corporations who donate to the programs would be able to subtract up to 75 percent of their contribution from what they owe the state in taxes. Up to $150 million in tax credits would be available in the first year.

Two of the programs would offer tax credits for donations that directly benefit public schools. Up to $37 million would go to public schools to fund a wide range of activities like after-school classes and arts enrichment. Another $10 million would be set aside for district and charter school teachers to be reimbursed up to $200 each for classroom supplies they buy on their own.

But most of the available money — $137 million — would go toward the other two programs, one of which would offer scholarships for “low-income and other students,” and the other offering $500 tuition checks for children from families earning less than $60,000. That, Cuomo and Dolan said, would help revitalize the state’s religious schools.

If the payments did lure parents who otherwise would have opted for district or charter schools, it could mean an even more complicated admissions landscape in certain low-income neighborhoods where charter and district schools already compete for students. (The number of eligible city students will depend on the volume of donations and individual tuition bills.)

The deep-pocketed supporters of the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese have poured millions into a three-year campaign for such legislation betting that it will make a difference, though. The diocese has had to close dozens of Catholic schools over the last decade, as city figures show they lost more than one-third of their total enrollment.

Enrollment in other types of private schools, especially Jewish schools, have increased, according to the IBO. And enrollment at city charter schools has exploded over that period, increasing from 2,422 students in 2003 to 83,000 this year.

That has led some to question the motives behind Cuomo’s advocacy and to ask why struggling Catholic schools should be propped up with public dollars.

“Why is the state promoting enrollment in religious schools?” said Laura Zingmond, who works for the school review website Insideschools, an arm of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, and a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy. “It should be neutral on this.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew called the proposal “a set of tax credit schemes” that would disproportionately benefit wealthy donors. Mulgrew, de Blasio, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have also said the state’s charter cap, which Cuomo wants to raise, should stay put.

On Monday, Cuomo reflected on his own experience attending Catholic schools in Queens  and said the legislation was meant to allow parents to choose among the widest possible array of schools for their children.

“I am a product of parochial school education – that was my parents’ choice,” Cuomo said. “I made a different choice with my three girls. We sent them to public elementary school in Westchester. It was a good public school, it was a good district, and that was the choice that I made.”

“So there is no right or wrong choice,” he said.

Extension please

Sponsor of Tennessee’s A-F school grading law wants launch postponed

Last year, Rep. Glen Casada proposed that all Tennessee schools be assigned a single A-F grade starting in the 2017-18 school year. His bill became law — but now he wants it delayed.

The Williamson County Republican and House majority leader says the state should hold off because this is the first year that elementary and middle school students will take its new test.

Last spring, the state canceled TNReady for grades 3-8, prolonging the transition to an assessment that is supposed to be more rigorous. The cancellation came just a month after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the law requiring the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a school grading system by this fall. Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Casada said this week, “but this year’s data is not up to standard.”

Casada said that Department of Education officials are moving ahead with the grading system, which is now built into the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, but are listening to feedback.

Officials from Williamson County Schools, the system in Casada’s district, are among school leaders with a separate set of concerns. They worry that under the new A-F grading system schools with high test scores will post lower grades if they don’t show growth. The school board in Collierville, a wealthy Memphis suburb, voted this week to lobby against the new grading system for the same reasons.

That’s the inverse of concerns discussed when the bill was snaking through the legislature last year. Then, supporters considered it a common-sense aid to help parents understand school quality. Because test scores often correlate with wealth, critics charged that schools in affluent, high-performing districts like Williamson would always get As, and that schools with more poor students would get lower grades.

The Tennessee Department of Education officials took such concerns into account when they drafted the proposal for the grading system, which was part of their ESSA draft plan. ESSA focuses more on school-level accountability than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. In the draft, both growth and raw achievement would be part of schools’ final grade, with the idea that schools won’t have an edge because of their demographics.

The performance of subgroups such as racial minorities also will be a determining factor in the ratings.

School leaders nationwide are facing the challenge of conveying school quality with a single letter grade as states and cities move to adopt such grading systems. Earlier this week, leaders of high-achieving districts in Texas urged state officials to repeal a new A-F system, but their lieutenant governor said it’s here to stay.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, says developing a fair and relevant grading system is a balancing act.

“If high-achieving schools end up getting low grades, people won’t trust the grading system,” he said.

But Tennessee officials say that historically high-ranked schools have nothing to worry about under the state’s proposal and that all schools will have the opportunity to make an A.

“… We were intentional about engaging all types of districts across Tennessee because this framework has to be able to work for the variety of schools we have,” said department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Call to action

Hickenlooper calls for “common sense” plan to fund Colorado schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross, Denver Post
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his State of the State speech on Jan. 11.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called on leaders from both parties Thursday to find a “common sense” plan to fund the state’s schools.

Hickenlooper, in his second-to-last State of the State address, described it as the only way the state can close the gap between its low-performing students and its high achievers.

“Closing the gap means giving students a solid foundation for success at every step of their education, as they move from preschool through K-12, toward college, certificate, or apprenticeship and onto a good job,” Hickenlooper said. “Part of that work includes a common sense plan to fund education.”

Although Hickenlooper did not describe possible solutions, his call for lawmakers to take on the issue is significant, lawmakers and advocates said.

“Calling it out, on his part, is raising the issue and challenge,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Frisco and a member of the state’s Joint Budget Committee, which writes the state budget.

Hamner said she especially appreciated Hickenlooper spotlighting that the share of local property taxes that fund public schools is expected to shrink by about $170 million this year.

The amendment, approved by voters in 1982, maintains a constant ratio between the residential property taxes and from business property taxes. When revenue from personal property taxes surpasses a threshold, the state must reduced the rate at which property is taxed to reset the ratio. That’s expected to happen this year.

School funding advocates received Hickenlooper’s speech tempered optimism.

“We’re gratified when the importance of adequately funding education is elevated,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for better school funding. “Now we need bold and visionary action by our elected leaders.”  

Before the session started, Weil’s group called on lawmakers and the governor to send more money to schools. Great Education Colorado is also leading a diverse group of education officials and other civic leaders considering a push to get a school funding measure on the 2018 ballot.

Following Hickenlooper’s speech, Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican, said he agreed that the Gallagher Amendment was damaging the way the state funds schools.

But Grantham was skeptical about asking voters to reset a statewide tax on personal property — an idea being explored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

“That’s going to be a lightning rod,” he said. “I don’t know if it will happen this year, or next year, or at all to be honest.”

How to fund the state’s public schools has been a long-running debate at the legislature and intensified after the Great Recession drove millions of dollars in cuts. A complex combination of constitutional amendments, such as Gallagher, and statutes largely has tied lawmakers’ hands in changing the system.

Changing the way the state funds its schools has been broached in the past, but changes have not materialized.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, said Wednesday her party is interested in exploring all options to increase school funding.

Both Duran and Hickenlooper have asked Republicans to rethink their position on changing how the state classifies state tax revenue from hospital visits. That, in turn, could allow the state to avoid constitutionally mandated taxpayer refunds, providing for more spending flexibility.

But like last year, Republicans are not interested.

“If they want to keep beating a dead horse, they’re welcome to,” Grantham said.

Grantham said he hopes next year’s budget can stave off increasing the state’s funding shortfall for schools. He praised his colleagues’ work in keeping cuts away from schools the last two years.  

“We’re looking at every single thing that is considered a core function of this government,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers have lost sight of what taxpayers want. “I think the voters were clear with Amendment 23. But after 2009, our state priorities have gone down a different path.”

Amendment 23, passed in 2000, requires the state to fund its schools to keep up with population growth and inflation.

Hickenlooper in his speech also called on the state to find away to provide high speed broadband to all the state’s schools.

“Tonight, somewhere in one of these (rural) communities, a high school student will sit in a parked car outside her town library,” he said. “She’ll huddle over her laptop, face glowing from the screen as she tries to finish her paper, because it’s the only place she can get wifi. That isn’t right.”