These are the NYC education issues to watch in Albany’s new legislative session

The New York State Assembly chambers at the capitol building in Albany. Funding will dominate the session this year. (Flickr for Gov. Andrew Cuomo)

State lawmakers are preparing to start a new legislative session on Jan. 6 where the No. 1 focus will be money — and how much can be salvaged for all the services New Yorkers rely on, including education.

School finances are always a big issue in Albany. But this year, local governments are staring down how to recover from an unprecedented disruption to in-person education while facing a financial crisis. This comes just eight months after legislators approved a budget that slashed state funding for school districts amid the worsening pandemic, and then plugged that hole with federal CARES Act dollars. 

“The reality is that the fiscal crisis is going to more than dominate the agenda this session,” said Queens Democrat Sen. John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee. 

As the state faces a $60 billion budget gap over the next four years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that school districts could see a 20% cut if more federal pandemic recovery dollars don’t come in. Even with more federal money, the state will still likely have to raise taxes, Cuomo recently said. 

Looming cuts on the state level mean local districts may have to slash services or programs for their students or lay off staff. New York City and other municipalities have already seen some of these cuts. At the same time, children’s needs are only increasing, as remote learning has exacerbated already existing inequities.

Many advocates want lawmakers to focus on raising money to address some of the deep divides, for instance, by expanding broadband access for every student or helping students catch up academically.  But it’s not clear how much focus these issues will receive in Albany this year. 

Still, the fiscal crisis won’t be the only New York City education issue to get air time. Debate is expected on mayoral control of city schools and the controversial specialized high schools admissions test. 

Here are some of the things we’ll be watching:

What will school funding look like?

New York might be able to avoid dire circumstances with the federal stimulus calling for $54 billion for public schools. That is about four times what they received from the coronavirus relief bill passed in March. The state education department is expected to receive an estimated $5.8 billion from the federal Education Stabilization Fund.

But the COVID-19 relief bill does not provide money to fill state budget gaps, raising the concern that with looming state cuts, schools might see no net gain. That’s what happened earlier this year when Cuomo replaced a portion of state dollars that go to school districts with federal CARES Act dollars. That money was meant to help districts deal with pandemic-related costs, but it didn’t end up supplementing school budgets. Districts with the highest shares of low-income students, like New York City, were left with less money than they would have received in normal times, while more affluent districts got roughly level funding, according to two analyses. 

In response to what happened with that CARES money, the Board of Regents, which sets education policy in New York, is asking the state to give districts all of the state dollars that were cut from the last budget and that no further state aid payments are withheld moving forward.

In all, the Regents want to raise overall aid by $1 billion compared to current funding — a tall order given the state’s overall financial situation.

Are tax hikes on the table?

Even before the pandemic, there was a push among unions and some public officials to raise taxes on the ultra wealthy to fund education. Calls have grown louder in recent months from the state’s progressive Democrats, who have proposed a slew of bills on the topic. This approach has gained support from powerful Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who wants to hold a session this month on the issue.

Sen. Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, has sponsored a bill that would raise taxes on billionaires and certain millionaires that would generate an estimated $4.5 billion to be funneled into Foundation Aid, which sends extra dollars to high needs districts.

“I just think that everyone knows that if we don’t raise revenue, you’re going to make drastic cuts, and the question is, are they willing to do that?” Jackson, who sits on both of the Senate’s education committees, said during an interview about the bill this summer.

While the Cuomo administration predicts the need to raise taxes even with federal aid, it has opposed raising them on the ultra wealthy alone, saying that it would cause those taxpayers, who pay for half of the state’s tax liability, to flock to places outside of New York. But some economists argue that those individuals live in New York City out of choice, such as for the unparalleled arts scene, and cutting government services could be a reason to leave. 

Will Albany address the digital divide?

State lawmakers are trying to find solutions to address the lack of reliable internet access that has left thousands of students behind, particularly those from low-income families and students in homeless shelters. 

A bill to expand broadband access, introduced by Yonkers Democrat and Senate education committee chair Sen. Shelley Mayer in November, would charge an assessment to telecommunications companies to cover or partially subsidize broadband access for all K-12 students across New York. (The New York State Telecommunications Association did not respond to a request for comment.) 

“This is a current state of crisis, and we’re trying to deal with it,” Mayer said.

It would, however, be a long shot for the bill to pass quickly enough to go into effect for this school year, given how long it can take for legislation to cycle through Albany.

Will legislators tackle ways to help students catch up?

Advocates are hopeful that legislators will turn their attention to what is — or isn’t —  being done to improve virtual instruction during a tumultuous time for schools.

“We think there needs to be an investment in effective evidence-based approaches to helping students catch up,” said Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children New York, noting that students with disabilities will need the most intensive help to catch up.

Some organizations are also looking for more transparency on how students are currently faring academically. 

The New York Equity Coalition, composed of 28 civil rights, education, and political organizations, asked the state last month to require school districts to publicly release detailed information about student learning, including how often students are logging in, how much live instruction they are receiving, and how much extended learning time is provided to those who “did not successfully engage” in remote learning over the spring.

“Knowing which students are not getting the support and services they need is essential to making sure we have the resources, the technical support, and the urgency to be meeting all the needs of students right now,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York, which is part of the coalition. 

But lawmakers might not focus on these topics. 

Jackson, for example, said he’s unsure “if anyone has a solution to that, quite frankly.” Liu said it’s up to the state and city education departments to address academic intervention. Many, including Jackson and Liu, said their biggest focus will be on funding so that schools have the resources to tackle these issues. (New York City recently announced a plan to combat learning loss next school year but has provided scant details.) 

What’s happening with mayoral control?

The mayor’s handling of school reopening and closings during the coronavirus crisis has some people predicting that mayoral control will become a bigger topic this session. 

As City Hall and the education department undertook the gargantuan task of reopening city schools, their plans were met with delays, last-minute announcements, and backtracking of certain promises, leaving thousands of families and educators frustrated. 

“I don’t think there will be action, but I think there will be rumblings because I think that there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the mayor’s governance of the school system,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

As written in state law, the mayor appoints the schools chancellor and most members to the Panel for Educational Policy, which approves contracts and big policy changes. 

Before the pandemic, state lawmakers held a hearing to re-examine New York City’s mayoral control system of schools. They expected to have more forums on the topic before mayoral control expired in June 2022 — after de Blasio leaves office. (A virtual state hearing had been scheduled for Dec. 17, but was postponed due to the winter storm.) 

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, has said he will fight to curb the mayor’s power. The union helped devise the city’s school reopening plan, but it has butted heads with City Hall numerous times this year over closing school buildings, health and safety matters, and staffing issues. At one point, members threatened to strike. 

Separately in the fall, the principals union issued a rare vote of no confidence in the mayor and schools chancellor asking the state education department to intervene with reopening planning.

Liu — a frequent critic of the mayor — said he and some Senate colleagues “are also talking about the need to do something and perhaps make changes.” Jackson said he expects people to air their critiques, but he didn’t think legislation to change the system will progress this year because the budget will take “priority.” 

Will the lawmakers push to change the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test?

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and ensuing racial unrest, some New York state lawmakers hoped they could gain ground on one education issue: repealing the law that governs the controversial Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. The exam is the sole method of admission to the city’s eight prestigious specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, and many see it as a barrier to admitting more Black and Hispanic students. Last year just 4.5% of offers went to Black students and 6.6% went to Hispanic students while 70% of students citywide are Black and Hispanic. A majority of offers went to white students (25.1%) and Asian students (54%).

Mayor de Blasio spent two years unsuccessfully lobbying lawmakers to phase out the test in favor of admitting the top students from each middle school. That bill quickly became toxic. Some white and Asian families felt they would be unfairly shut out of admissions, and some Asian families blasted the mayor for not communicating with them before putting the proposal forward. The bill never made it to the Senate or Assembly floor.

Some of the state lawmakers who supported that measure are now attempting to repeal the state law that governs the test altogether, and their efforts will likely spark debate, observers say. Meanwhile, the pro-test Education Equity Campaign, a deep-pocketed group led by cosmetics heir and Bronx Science grad Ronald Lauder, is expected to fight against changes to the law.  

“I think it’s a live topic,” Bloomfield said. “I think at this point the legislature is somewhat tired of the issue and might just dissolve its own responsibility for its own sake as opposed to the social justice reasons.”

Liu, who opposes a repeal of the law, said “there are bigger fish to fry” this year than the admissions test. Jackson, who supports repealing the law, agreed. 

“That is one of many issues we need to discuss, but the primary focus is gonna be on the stimulus package, money for people to eat and stay in their homes,” Jackson said. 

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