funding fun

After heated debate, New York charter schools receive boost; school aid increases by $1.1 billion

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

More than a week after the state’s budget deadline, lawmakers resolved their differences on education with a per-pupil increase in charter school funding and a $1.1 billion increase in school aid.

The funding tug-of-war between charters and traditional public schools boiled over into a contentious fight this year, which contributed to the most delayed budget on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s watch.

Charter schools were due a big funding boost if lawmakers did not act, a concern for the Democrat-controlled Assembly and teachers unions. Meanwhile, Cuomo warned that the state might not be able to handle a large increase in education spending with possible federal cuts on the horizon.

In the end, despite the long haul, the set of compromises seems to have left each party at least fairly satisfied. Charter schools will get extra funding and will have future aid linked to spending on traditional public schools. State aid for education, more broadly, will increase by more than $1 billion. The state’s teachers union called the budget “all in all, progress for our students.”

Here’s more on each of the big education items announced in this year’s budget:

Charter schools get funding boost, increases will be linked to those for public schools

The deal will increase funding for charter schools by $500 per pupil, and starting in the 2018-19 school year, “tuition” funding paid by the state will increase at the same rate as public school spending.

That compromise was struck, in part, in response to a charter school tuition formula that has been frozen since 2010-11 (though some years charter schools have received supplemental aid). The formula was set to unfreeze this year and would have resulted in a $1,500 increase in per-pupil spending, which Cuomo called a “windfall” for charter schools. (Charter school advocates say it is important to achieve equitable funding between traditional public schools and charters.)

One major problem with that plan, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was that the extra funding was set to come out of the city’s budget. (New York City’s Office of Management and Budget estimated it would cost the city about $200 million.)

The final result strikes a middle ground. The state will cover the extra $500 per pupil in the upcoming school year, but starting the next year, when charter school tuition increases mirror district school increases — and that money will come out of the city’s coffers.

There is another benefit for charter schools in the state’s budget: more funds for schools moving into private space. Under a 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent. Now, that number has jumped to 30 percent.

Finally, Cuomo proposed lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in New York City in January and instead having one big cap for the entire state. That proposal was rejected, leaving only 30 additional charter school slots for the city — and perhaps a battle for another year.

Most charter advocates are pleased with the outcome. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman called it a “major victory.”

“This budget agreement was hard fought and we deeply appreciate the tenacious commitment of Governor Cuomo, Majority Leader Flanagan and Coalition Leader Klein to treat public charter school students fairly,” said Merriman said in a statement.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz disagreed with that assessment, saying the agreement “shortchanged” students in charter schools.

Total school aid spending a bit below proposals

School aid is set to increase by $1.1 billion, bringing total education spending to $25.8 billion.

That is slightly below expectations. It is close to what the governor originally proposed — a $1 billion increase — but it is less than what the Assembly or Senate proposed, $1.8 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively. It is also far below what state’s education policymaking body proposed at $2.1 billion.

Late in March, Cuomo suggested the threat of federal cuts could limit education spending, since he was not sure the budget could handle “dramatic increases” with federal uncertainty.

Foundation aid is here to stay

A major portion of education spending is allocated through a “foundation aid” formula, which is designed to help to needy students. The formula was created in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found some New York children did not have access to a sound basic education.

This year’s increase in foundation aid is $700 million, though advocates argue the total increase should be much higher, given the amount they say is owed under the lawsuit: $4.3 billion in all. The state’s Board of Regents outlined an “aggressive” plan to have the state provide that full amount over three years.

But advocates are relieved the “foundation aid” formula itself will remain intact. Cuomo’s original proposal included a controversial change to the formula that several advocates called a “repeal.” That’s off the table this year and an additional increase is expected next year, according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director Robert Lowry. But it remains to be seen whether the total amount of funding will be fully phased in over the years to come, especially since Cuomo’s office disagrees that the money is owed to schools.

“In a major victory, Governor Cuomo’s plan to repeal the foundation aid formula was defeated,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for increased school funding. “The foundation aid increase is modest, but it is a significant improvement on the truly meager foundation aid proposal offered by the governor.”

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”