Big money

Board of Regents asks state lawmakers for additional $2.1 billion in school funds

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent James Tallon after a recent Board of Regents meeting.

In the run up to the legislative session, the state’s education policymaking body staked out an “aggressive” position to increase state education funding over the next three years, including a $2.1 billion increase next year over last year’s $24.8 billion budget.

Central to the board’s proposal is a three-year phase-in of “foundation aid,” a formula created over a decade ago and derailed by the recession that aims to provide sufficient funding to districts with high-needs students. In New York City, 30 percent of the state’s allocation to the city comes from foundation aid, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The Board of Regents is poised to call for a full phase-in of $4.3 billion in total aid by the 2019-20 school year, including $1.47 billion to be provided next year.

“We thought it appropriate for the Regents to remind everybody that foundation aid is something the Regents made a commitment to a long, long time ago,” said Regent James Tallon,who chairs the Regents state aid subcommittee. “And therefore, in doing the three-year phase-in, I think we’re being aggressive.”

The state’s foundation aid formula was created in response to a lawsuit claiming the state does not provide enough funding to give each child a sound basic education. Funding increases were put on hold during the recession, while many districts across the state absorbed education budget cuts. The state restored some recession-era cuts last year, leaving advocates hopeful the state legislature will refocus its commitment on restoring foundation aid this year.

Still, extra education funding is far from a done deal. The Board of Regents has no formal power over the legislature, so their proposal is only a suggestion for lawmakers. Making matters more complicated, the state recalculated the amount districts are owed in foundation aid after November and increased the total owed to districts by $500 million, mainly because of increased student enrollment in high-needs districts.

“We are by no means out of the woods,” Tallon said. He also acknowledged that budget constraints could make a full restoration of aid an uphill battle. “We’re not unmindful of the fact that the state is in one of these cycles that going to place a lot of constraints on revenue,” Tallon said.

The increase in foundation aid represents a large portion of the Regents proposal, but there are a number of other initiatives that bring the board’s total suggested increase to $2.1 billion. The other budgetary asks include $100 million to support English Language Learners and $60 million to build career and technical education programs. The total ask is a bit less than the $2.4 billion increase Regents proposed last year, but far more than the $1.5 billion in additional funds that ended up in the final budget.

State officials also suggesting changes to how the aid formula calculates poverty. Like most states across the country, New York has long used free and reduced-priced lunch to calculate student need. But that metric has become increasingly flawed as more schools offer universal free lunch, leading fewer families to fill out the free lunch form.

Instead, the Regents have suggested switching to “direct certification,” which counts students whose families are engaged in other programs like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). State officials said they expect the proposal — which suggests using a blend of free and reduced-priced lunch and direct certification while the state makes the transition — to have little effect on the total funding directed towards New York City.

On Monday, the Regents gave preliminary approval to the proposal. They are expected to cast a final vote on the state aid proposal on Tuesday.

Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: 

vying for vouchers

Grilled by lawmakers, Betsy DeVos says voucher rules should be set locally — even if some kids are shut out

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos faced tough questions Wednesday from lawmakers on whether private schools in voucher programs would be allowed to exclude students, including LGBT students and students with disabilities.

The budget plan the Trump administration released this week asks for $250 million to fund pilot programs that would use public funds to pay tuition for students at private schools. Those voucher programs are a focus of U.S. Education Secretary DeVos, who has said they are critical for helping low-income families who need more good choices for educating their children.

The budget is unlikely to be enacted by Congress, but it’s put more attention on a key aspect of how these voucher programs work: outside of the public school system and without the same rules for accountability and access.

Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked DeVos about a Christian school in Indiana that participates in that state’s voucher program and whose handbook says students may be denied admission if they have a gay family member.

“If Indiana applies for this federal funding, would you stand up that this school be open to all students?” Clark asked. “Is there a line for you on state flexibility?”

“For states that have programs that allow parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos responded.

“So that’s a no,” Clark said.

DeVos noted that the education department’s Office of Civil Rights would continue its work. All private schools are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin, but they can discriminate based on sexual orientation — in fact, no voucher program in the country prohibits participating schools from discriminating against LGBT students.

Private schools may also be able to deny admission to students with disabilities. DeVos herself visited Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis on Tuesday, a Catholic school that participates in Indiana’s voucher program and whose admissions website warns that it has “limited ability to offer services” for students with disabilities.

Some voucher programs are designed specifically for those students. In turn, those students typically give up some or all of their rights under IDEA.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, challenged DeVos on whether new voucher programs would actually help needy students with few options. In Milwaukee, home to the country’s longest-running voucher program, Pocan noted that many voucher recipients already attended a private school and came from wealthy families.

“The 28,000 students that are attending school by the choice of their parents in Milwaukee — that is a success for those students,” DeVos responded. “Those parents have decided that’s the right place for their children to be.”

Pocan mentioned recent studies out of Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showing that students using vouchers lose ground on standardized tests after attending private schools. (“I think you were asked recently about this and I know you were on your way out and didn’t have a chance to answer, so I’m glad that today we’ve got a chance to ask some of these questions,” he said.)

Pocan said his experience had led him to conclude that Wisconsin’s school voucher programs had failed. However, research on Milwaukee’s voucher program found it has had a positive effect on students’ likelihood of attending and staying in college.

Pocan also asked DeVos about how any new voucher programs that used federal dollars would be held accountable for their success. DeVos responded by discussing the responsibility of each state to craft accountability rules under ESSA, the new federal education law, which private schools are generally not subject to.