state of the state

Gov. Cuomo unveils plan to expand community schools, urges scrutiny of charter enrollment

PHOTO: NYS Governor's Office/Flickr
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 State of the State address Wednesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed boosting state education spending, particularly for troubled schools, in an agenda-setting speech Wednesday that shied away from the contentious education proposals that defined last year’s address.

His most significant proposal was a $100 million plan to convert struggling schools into resource-filled “community” schools. He also called for more funding and oversight for charter schools, a $2.1 billion increase in school funding over the next two years, and a series of changes to the Common Core learning standards, which a state panel recommended last month.

The changes include a temporary ban on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, which marks a reversal from Cuomo’s proposal in last year’s State of the State address to increase the weight of test scores in evaluations. Cuomo did not mention the evaluations on Wednesday, but instead blamed the state education department for a bungled rollout of the standards and assessments, which he suggested had fueled parents’ massive test boycott last year.

The changes are necessary to restore the public’s faith in the state’s education system, he said.

“The education system fails without parental trust,” he said during his roughly two-hour budget and policy speech.

Groups that say the state’s urban schools are severely underfunded were disappointed by Cuomo’s proposed budget increase, while charter school groups were pleased with the idea of extra funds. His more modest education plans this year avoided the fierce attacks by critics that last year’s speech provoked — particularly the state teachers union, which called last year’s speech “intellectually hollow” and “misguided.”

On Wednesday, the union called Cuomo’s latest address “a starting point that sets a positive tone for public education.”

More funding for community schools

The governor wants to earmark $100 million to expand the number of “community” schools, which would provide before-and-after school mentoring, summer activities, and health services to students.

Of that $100 million, $75 million will be allocated to the 17 districts that have schools the state has designated as struggling based on their low test scores or graduation rates. (Last year, only “persistently struggling” schools were eligible to receive a portion of $75 million set aside for turnaround efforts.)

New York City has led the charge on creating community schools. Adding extra support services to struggling schools is at the center of the city’s “Renewal” improvement program, which predated the state’s turnaround effort.

More funding, and enrollment scrutiny, for charter schools

Cuomo, a longtime supporter of the charter-school movement, had mixed messages for charter schools.

He made it clear that he supports the development of more charter schools. His budget proposal increases funding for charter schools by $27 million and will allow the per-pupil funding formula for charter schools to change. (The state’s charter law has frozen per-pupil spending in recent years, frustrating charter advocates who note that their budgets haven’t increased even as district school budgets have.)

“Governor Cuomo’s proposal is a vital element of fixing funding inequity for charter schools,” the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools said in a statement.

He also said he wants state officials to examine the enrollment and retention policies at charter schools. There’s been “anecdotal evidence of troubling practices,” the budget materials read.

That could be a shot at Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, which has been under scrutiny recently after one principal created a “Got to Go” list of troublesome students.

Common Core, state tests, and a final flip-flop

The governor officially accepted all 21 recommendations of made by his Common Core task force in December. It recommended editing the controversial learning standards, especially those for the youngest students, and a number of changes to state tests. The task force also recommended suspending the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations.

Cuomo’s endorsement of the suggestions represents a complete reversal of his policy on teacher evaluations. Last year he used his State of the State Speech to call for tougher teacher evaluations. At Cuomo’s urging, the legislature passed a law that required standardized testing counted for about half a teacher’s evaluation.

The law helped spark a state test opt-out movement that included 20 percent of public school students statewide.

Funding

The governor proposed a $2.1 billion increase in state aid to schools over the next two years and a $1 billion increase this year. Cuomo’s materials boast that the allocation would increase school aid to the highest level in history, though it’s lower than the Board of Regents proposal for $2.4 billion in the 2016-17 school year.

It’s also lower than what many education interest groups want. The New York State Educational Conference Board, which is comprised of groups like the state teachers union and the council of school superintendents, suggested a $2.2 billion increase.

Cuomo also proposed eliminating the $434 million Gap Elimination Adjustment, which cut education funding during the financial crisis based on a formula that took a district’s share of high-needs students into account.

Mayoral control

With mayoral control of New York City’s schools set to expire this year, the governor said Wednesday that he supports a three-year extension.

He also supported a three-year extension last January, but ended up renewing the law for only a year amid a public feud between with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who accused Cuomo of using mayoral control as a “political football.”

The mayor struck a more conciliatory tone after governor’s speech.

“I would say this is a system that should be locked in for the long-term, or certainly extended on a longer basis,” de Blasio said in a press conference after the speech, “but I appreciate that the governor put forward a specific number.”

Pre-kindergarten

The budget included an additional $22 million for pre-kindergarten programs specifically for three year olds. The investment should create 2,000 to 2,500 new pre-K seats across the state.

Cuomo also supports additional monitoring of pre-K programs. An additional $2 million would support QUALITYstarsNY, a program that reviews early education programs. In the past, pre-K sites didn’t have to use the program. Under Cuomo’s plan, those serving high-needs students would be required to participate or lose state funding.

New York City, where de Blasio has made the expansion of pre-K a signature issue, is using its own system to review individual pre-K programs. Last month, the city announced results from its first review, which indicated that about 77 percent of pre-K programs were meeting a benchmark that shows positive impact on students.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”