final agreement

State leaders agree to deal extending mayoral control by one year; adds NYC charters

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

State lawmakers have agreed to a deal that would extend mayoral control of city schools by just one year and would allow more charter schools to open in New York City.

The one-year extension of mayoral control is a significant blow to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had requested a permanent, and then a three-year, extension of the law, arguing that it would provide needed stability as he continued his efforts to improve the city’s schools.

The one-year extension is the “best thing to do at this point,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as he announced the framework of the deal Tuesday alongside Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

The deal comes one week before the mayoral control legislation would have expired, allowing the city to avoid the logistical headaches that would have followed if the legislation had been allowed to lapse, as it was in 2009. But the package of education changes marks another chapter in what has been a series of sobering experiences for de Blasio negotiating with Cuomo and the state legislature.

Last year, de Blasio won funding for his top education initiatives, including pre-kindergarten expansion, but was then hit with a costly new law requiring the city to provide space or rent help for charter schools after he signaled interest in restricting their access to public school buildings. This year, the legislature also passed a new teacher-evaluation law that both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have criticized, and Cuomo repeatedly clashed with the mayor over rent regulations and other issues.

The deal would also increase the number of additional charter schools that could open in New York City from 25 to 50. Of the 25 new charters, 22 are coming from schools that were authorized but never opened or that have closed, which under current law still count against the cap. New York City, where there is more demand for charter schools than the rest of the state, will also have three charters moved from the statewide pool of charters to its own.

The deal would also remove the specific numbers of charters assigned to both of the state’s authorizers. That would allow more city charter school applicants to apply through the State University of New York — a big deal for the larger charter school networks, whose preferred authorizer is SUNY. Before the change, just one more charter school authorized by SUNY could have opened in New York City, but the change would mean as many as 50 now could.

The state leaders also announced an infusion of about $250 million for nonpublic schools, though the much-debated education tax credit did not make it into the final deal. Cuomo said that funding — $100 million more than the education tax credit would have funneled to nonpublic schools — was necessary to help private and parochial schools struggling to stay afloat.

“If we allow those schools to continue to close and those students start moving over to the public school system, you will place an impossible burden on the public school system,” he said.

The deal, which must still be approved by the State Senate and Assembly, pushes the expiration of mayoral control to June 30, 2016. That means de Blasio is likely to spent part of the next year continuing to lobby for a policy he has spent months trying to portray as a settled, nonpartisan matter, lining up support from less-traditional allies like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and coalitions of business leaders.

City teachers union leader Michael Mulgrew, business leaders, and charter-school advocates all found things to praise in the deal, which included concessions for all of those groups.

The unions touted the elimination of a “gag order” that had prohibited teachers from speaking about the state standardized English and math tests. State education officials had prohibited teachers and principals from discussing the tests’ contents because they sometimes had to use the same questions from one year to the next. Another part of the agreement, union officials said, requires that State Education Department release more test questions. (The state released about half of the test questions from the 2014 exams.)

“We started this session with the Governor attacking teachers and public education,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “We have ended up with no education tax credit and no raise in the charter cap, with only four charters reassigned to the five boroughs.”

“The business community is relieved that the end-of-session compromise reflects an undiluted extension of mayoral control of the New York City schools,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders that advocated for a permanent extension of mayoral control.

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year. 

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”