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.”

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.