Budget battles

36 principals join public push for funds, saying gaps hurt special ed, English learners

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Sean Licata, who is starting his fourth year as principal of the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx, watched over his students on the first day of school.

Last year, when parents and teachers rallied at hundreds of schools to call for additional school funding, one group’s voice was largely absent: principals.

But one year later, 36 New York City principals are making a direct appeal to the state. In a letter addressed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and publicized as budget negotiations are underway in Albany — the principals are demanding the nearly $2 billion they say city schools are owed.

“We as principals have found our voice,” said Jamaal Bowman of CASA Middle School in the Bronx, who penned the letter.

Bowman and two of the other 36 principals told Chalkbeat that they would use additional funds to solve one of their toughest problems: Not having enough staff members to work with students who come to school farthest behind.

Bowman’s school is currently without a teacher certified to teach English learners, he said, and more funding would mean a greater ability to recruit teachers to work with smaller groups of students.

“The teacher who worked with our English language learners left right at the start of the school year and we were stuck,” Bowman said. His two certified special-education teachers have also spread themselves thin, he said, using lunch and prep time to offer needed services.

“The funding would allow me to hire another teacher to support them,” he said.

James Bellon, the principal of CASA Elementary School who also signed the letter, said his school faces similar challenges.

Many of his youngest students need early academic intervention, and hiring someone to focus on that work could save the school money later on services the students will need as they fall further behind, he noted.

CASA Elementary also deals with a lot of students who transfer in during third, fourth, and fifth grade. Now, Bellon said he’s using some funds to pay teachers to work with students through their extra periods, during lunch, and before and after the school day. But another teacher to help those students catch up would be ideal.

“We have to be very creative with scheduling because we don’t have enough teachers,” said Bellon.

The principals’ demands for funding are in line with a years-long push from advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education, who say the state must comply with the terms of a 2006 lawsuit settlement that established a formula for education funding. Schools across the state are owed an additional $2.9 billion, advocates say.

The de Blasio administration has moved to increase school budgets as the recession waned and state education spending rebounded. This year, the governor, the State Assembly, and the Senate have all proposed increasing education spending again, though not by the full amount that advocates want.

That money would help schools fill in other gaps, too, the principals said.

CASA Middle opened in 2009, and grant money helped the school offer enrichment opportunities like school trips to museums, leadership training programs for select students, and robotics classes. Those have had to stop in recent years, Bowman said.

Bellon, the elementary school principal, said his dream would be to fund an after-school band or choral program. Bowman would create at least a part-time computer science program at his school.

At Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said he would use additional funds to create a laptop library and address his special-education staffing shortfalls.

“Many of our students don’t have computers at home, and the money would allow us to rethink how we use technology,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “I want to be a partner with the state, but this money belongs to our communities and we feel the missed opportunities.”

budget debate

Under the House budget plan, suburban districts would get more money while some urban districts would get less

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Suburban schools, English-learners and virtual schools would fare well under the Indiana House’s 2017 budget plan, while Indianapolis Public Schools and other urban districts would see drops in state support.

In the Republican-crafted two-year budget draft, presented to the House Ways and Means Committee today, Indiana schools are projected to get an extra $273 million to support student learning, a 2.8 percent increase overall. Basic per-student funding that all districts get would also increase to $5,323 in 2019, up 4.6 percent from the $5,088 they received in 2017.

Much like in 2015, almost every district in Marion County would see a slight increase in state funding, with the largest bumps going to Beech Grove and Perry Townships. Each would get nearly 8 percent more in tuition support — the state’s contribution that funds each student’s education. Both districts’ boosts can be attributed in part to growing student populations.

Only one district in the county is expected to lose funding. IPS would see a big decline in state aid under the proposed budget, down by nearly 5 percent. That’s partially because enrollment is projected to decline over the next two years. But the largest drop would come from a reduction in the “complexity index” — extra dollars districts receive to educate poor students. That amount would fall by $9.4 million by 2019.

During her campaign, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick called for adjustments to the complexity index, but House lawmakers kept the calculation as it was. It will continue to rely on how many families qualify for food stamps, foster care and welfare programs.

Although IPS and other urban districts — such as those in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond — lose either tuition support, per-student funding or both, many township and suburban districts saw increases.

In order to cover those increases in a year when state revenues are less than expected, Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, chairman of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, said the state did have to make cuts.

The House plan axes money for teacher performance bonuses. Last year, Indiana paid $40 million for the bonuses, which varied widely from district to district. High-performing teachers from wealthier districts got as much as a few thousand dollars, while those in poorer urban districts, such as Wayne Township, received less than $50.

Brown said the priority was finding a way to increase funding for all students.

“We made the decision, especially in this tight first year, to see what we could do to boost the foundation for every child in Indiana,” Brown said.

That move is likely to see pushback from the Senate. Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he’d like to see the bonuses continue, albeit in a fairer way.

The House plan would also increase the budget for English-learners by 50 percent, going to $300 per student in 2018 and $350 per student in 2019, up from $200 per student in 2017.

Virtual charter schools, previously funded at just 90 percent of what other schools receive from the state, are bumped up to 100 percent under this plan. The proposal comes as Indiana’s online schools have struggled to find success — each one received an F from the state in 2016.

However, Brown argued they should be treated the same as other schools because “every child is equal.”

The overall $273 million boost to schools would also include an 11.3 percent increase in funding to Indiana’s taxpayer-funded voucher program, where families can use state dollars for private school tuition. Contributions are expected to move to $163 million in 2019, up from $146 million in 2017 due to higher anticipated participation.

The House plan sets aside less than what Gov. Eric Holcomb and McCormick have endorsed, but Brown said that the House’s plan — unlike Holcomb’s — is based on what was actually spent in 2017, not what lawmakers originally appropriated. State school districts enrolled fewer students than anticipated, so less money was spent.

The plan still has to pass out of Ways and Means before it heads to the full House, likely sometime next week.

The budget also includes:

  • $20 million per year for the state’s preschool program
  • $1.5 million per year for developing teacher “career pathways.”
  • $1 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $2 million over two years for schools to use toward counseling and student support services, such as ones provided through groups like Communities In Schools.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs
  • Kids with the most severe special needs would get a 4 percent increase in per-student funding over the next two years.
  • $12.5 million per year (up from $9.5 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program
  • $12.5 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.

one hurdle down

Charter school funding bill clears Senate Education Committee

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

A bill that would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

Senate Bill 61 advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Supporters testified during a hearing last week that charter school students deserve equal access to taxes their parents pay each year.

Charter schools receive public money but operate independently, with greater autonomy over budgets, curriculum, and hiring and firing. Currently, it’s up to districts whether to share revenues from local tax increases with charter schools, and practices vary.

Opponents said the state would set a dangerous precedent, essentially breaking a compact between school boards and voters who approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides. Under the bill, charters would get a share from such tax measures approved by voters in the past and any that win approval in the future.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat. It is expected to win Senate approval but its future is cloudier in the Democratic-controlled House. Similar legislative efforts have failed in the past.

“What this bill is really about is the funding disparities that exist,” Williams told the Senate committee Wednesday. “Charters are public schools. They are schools that all our children attend … I don’t think any kid should be systematically underfunded because of the type of school they attend.”

Democrats on the education committee raised a number of concerns. Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, said that while she fully supports school choice, the state has not been adequately funding the public school system.

“We are in a financial bind as a state,” Todd said. “I don’t believe that it is our role to step in and tell the local school districts what they have to do and how they are going to spend their money. Where does that stop?”

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who represents portions of Jefferson County, said she struggled with the bill. She too cited the financial pressures on districts, which continue to face shortfalls under Colorado’s complicated school funding system.

“I really feel at this time I can’t tie the hands of my local district people with another mandate from the state,” she said.

Sen. Tim Neville echoed other Republicans in saying he supports the bill to bring equality to school funding. He also pointed out that mill levy overrides approved by voters this fall included no language excluding charter schools.

The committee vote was 4-3, with Republicans Hill, Neville, Bob Gardner and Kevin Priola voting yes, and Democrats Todd, Zenzinger and Mike Merrifield voting no.