Big money

Senate releases budget plan, weighing in on school funding saga and rejecting Cuomo’s ‘Excelsior Scholarship’ proposal

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

As state lawmakers approach the budget deadline of April 1, the three big proposals are now on the table.

The Senate passed a budget proposal on Wednesday that includes a new vision for college affordability, a different take on school funding, and more support for charter schools. Now that the Senate, Assembly and governor’s proposals are public, the three will begin hammering out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the education proposals championed by the Senate:

— The Senate education proposal increases total school aid by $1.2 billion. That’s more than the $1 billion increase that the governor proposed, but less than the Board of Regents ($2.1 billion) or the Assembly ($1.8 billion) requested.

The Senate also addresses “foundation aid” — school funding that is distributed through a formula based on need. The formula was created in response to a 2006 settlement in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found state funding levels were not always sufficient to provide a sound basic education.

It has generated extra controversy this year after Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed not fully phasing in the formula, a move some advocates described as a “repeal” of the agreement. Instead of picking sides, the Senate opted for a new way to allocate funds.

The Senate proposes providing more foundation aid than the governor, but divvying up that money among new funding streams. Funds would be specifically earmarked for New York City, community schools, small cities and rural districts among other entities, according to Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that has long fought for increased school funding.

Easton says from his initial read of the proposal, this new formula would result in less funding for New York City than under the current formula.

“The goal is to drive money away from New York City and other high-needs school districts,” Easton said.

— The Senate rejects the governor’s “Excelsior Scholarship” — a plan that provides free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools to families making less than $125,000 per year — but provides a college affordability plan of its own.

Its plan invests in the state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program, which can be used at both public and private colleges. The governor’s plan has been criticized for disadvantaging private colleges.

The benefits of the Senate’s plan would fall mostly on middle- and upper middle-income families, said Kevin Stump, Northeast regional director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues. Families earning about $50,000 to $125,000 would benefit the most, while some lower-income students would see an increase of a few hundred dollars per year, he said. As with the governor’s plan, the money comes with strings attached. In this case, he said, it includes a requirement that students take 30 credits each year and meet GPA standards.

— To nobody’s surprise, the Senate’s budget provides strong support for charter schools. It carries over the perks in the governor’s executive budget, including lifting the charter school cap in New York City, unfreezing the charter school tuition formula and providing additional funding to New York City charter schools moving into private space.

But the Senate goes further than the governor in its backing of charter schools. It calls for lifting the charter school cap statewide, providing building aid statewide, and increasing funding so schools can cover the expenses of support staff, like nurses or security guards, said Greg Berck, assistant director of government relations at the Council of School Superintendents.

“Members of the New York State Senate … have once again shown their incredible commitment to charter school families,” said Northeast Charter Schools Network New York State Director Andrea Rogers. “We are grateful for this bipartisan coalition of senators who understand the importance of investing in charter schools that are working and respecting the choices of the families that choose them.”

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.