frozen

New York’s latest charter-school funding debate, explained

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

If Suyin So had more funding, she would increase small group instruction, provide more music classes, and offer a language at her charter school in Queens. But first, she’d deal with the pipe that burst in a special education classroom this year.

“We’re contending with, is the boiler going to blow and who’s going to fix that?” said So, the founder and executive director of Central Queens Academy. Recently, she added, “I’ve learned way more about construction than about instruction.”

So is one of many hoping for increased charter school funding in the state budget this year. While district school per-student funding has increased by $2,113 since 2010 in New York City, charter schools have seen a $350 per-student increase, according to Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group that organized a rally around the issue on Wednesday in Albany.

That doesn’t necessarily mean all charter schools have had less to spend on students than district schools. But the bulk of public funding for charter schools has been held nearly constant for five years. Advocates hope that will change this year, since the governor proposed lifting the freeze in New York City in his executive budget.

But why was the funding freeze there to begin with? Why change it now? And how has it affected charter schools?

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the funding freeze?

Under state law, as district school funding increases or decreases, so should charter school funding. (The charter figure lags by two years.) But the governor and legislature froze the number for charter schools at the end of the recession for 2009-10 and then again in 2010-11. The level of funding has held at the 2010-11 level ever since.

In the first years of the freeze, funding increases did not differ dramatically between district schools and charter schools. Some charter advocates were grateful that their funding remained constant during tough budgetary times.

But as the economy improved, district schools began receiving more funds, including from a new city teacher contract that upped teacher salaries. Charter schools got funding boosts in lump sums from the state, but overall, district school funding in New York City increased at six times the rate of charter school funding, according to FES.

Now, charter school advocates want to return to a formula that allows charter funding to increase as district school funds do.

So, have charter schools had less to spend on students?

It depends. Last summer, the city’s Independent Budget Office said although the city has increased funding for district schools more than for charter schools, the funding they receive is nearly identical — at least for the charter schools that operate in district buildings.

When those services, including maintenance and security costs, are taken into account, co-located charter schools received only $29 per student less than district schools in 2014-2015, according to the IBO.

“We say it’s essentially the same,” said Ray Domanico, the IBO’s research director.“Twenty-nine dollars is really a pretty meaningless difference.”

Charter schools that pay for their own space, though, received almost $3,000 less per student in funding than district schools, according to the IBO. All told, the city’s traditional public schools received an average of $17,928 per student in 2014-15, while co-located charter schools received $17,899 and charter schools in private space received $15,014.

(Advocacy groups, including FES and the Northeast Charter Schools Network, have disputed the IBO’s findings and questioned its methodology.)

As the city’s teachers union is quick to point out, charter schools can also raise money through private fundraising. New or expanding charter schools can now also apply for money to help pay for private space — further reducing that gap for schools that qualify. Central Queens Academy, which rents its own space and opened in 2012, gets that funding for some, but not all, of its students.

Why do charter advocates care about this now?

Charter advocates have been pushing to unfreeze the per-student funding formula for years, but it didn’t make it into Gov. Cuomo’s proposal or the final budget deal last year.

The funding boost would also provide an immediate benefit to all city charter schools, unlike the rent assistance, and would come as education spending continues to rise at a fast clip. From 2009 to 2014, district schools increased general education spending by $1,376 per student, according to the IBO.

What is the governor proposing?

The governor proposed both a lump sum of $27 million for charter schools and for charter school funding to parallel district school funding in New York City.

The funding formula is already set to unfreeze for the entire state next year, which means the governor’s proposal would “jumpstart” the process for New York City, said Andrea Rogers, a senior policy director at Northeast Charter Schools Network.

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 Davidson, 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,” Davidson 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.”

 

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.