wish list

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.)

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.