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Assembly budget invests in college tuition, rejects governor’s ‘repeal’ of foundation aid

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie, after meeting with Assembly Democrats in 2015.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly made its education positions known on Monday night when it released its budget bill, embracing a college affordability agenda beyond what the governor has proposed, and calling for more funding for traditional public schools.

The education provisions in the bill are in keeping with the Assembly’s past stances. The chamber generally supports the Foundation Aid formula, designed to distribute school funding more equitably, takes a hard line on charter schools and wants to extend mayoral control. With those positions now established for this budget cycle, the Assembly will haggle with the Senate and the governor to hammer out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the highlights from the Assembly’s budget:

— The Assembly budget increases school aid by $1.8 billion, with a $1.4 billion increase in foundation aid. That’s more than the governor proposed. It also rejects the executive budget’s decision to not fully fund the foundation aid formula, calling that a “repeal,” and commits to a four-year phase-in.

— The Assembly budget would reconfigure state aid so state college students could use a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior scholarship offers free college tuition to full-time students at state colleges whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. It has been criticized for providing little additional help for low-income students who already have their tuition covered by state and federal aid, but need help paying for non-tuition expenses like books, rent and food. The Assembly budget would raise the cutoff for families to $150,00o per year  in the fourth year of the program.

Another provision in Cuomo’s college tuition plan calls for students to average 15 credits per semester. That measure has been called “punitive” by at least one Assembly member and has been criticized by the chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee. (Most SUNY students don’t graduate in four years.) The Assembly’s budget allows students to take two semesters of 12 credits during their college tenure. In addition, it increases the maximum TAP award, or the amount students receive in state aid.

— The Assembly’s budget is not kind to charter schools. In fact, it rejects benefits included in the executive budget and provides some strings of its own. The Assembly would freeze charter school tuition, rejects the idea to lift New York City’s charter school cap and includes provisions related to transparency, enrollment and discipline.

— Mayoral control is extended for seven years in the Assembly’s budget, but it’s not the Assembly that stands in the way of a longer extension for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It’s Republicans in the Senate who have forced the mayor into one-year extensions for the past two years.

— The Assembly’s budget would require New York City to study the admissions process at the city’s specialized high schools. Though the city has said it wants to increase diversity at the elite crop of schools, its efforts do not seem to be working. Only 10 percent of specialized high school offers went to black and Hispanic students this year, despite the fact that those students make up about 70 percent of the city’s total student population.

— The budget includes $15 million in grants for school districts with growing English Language Learner populations, earmarked to help improve graduation rates. That is another area where New York City has struggled recently. Though graduation rates improved overall in 2016, those for English Language Learners decreased by almost 10 percentage points. (The city argues that is a misleading statistic because when current and former ELL students are combined, 57 more students graduated this year.)

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.