To help NYC students catch up, de Blasio’s budget would earmark $500M for testing and tutoring

Mayor Bill de Blasio presents his updated budget proposal for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The mayor proposed a slew of investments for education, including half a billion dollars for academic intervention. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to spend half a billion dollars to help students catch up academically after a year of pandemic-related disruptions. 

That infusion of cash, to be spent next school year, would cover tutoring, “universal academic assessments” to gauge children’s skills, and extra planning time for teachers, according to the executive budget de Blasio presented Monday.

De Blasio’s proposed budget — the last of his mayoralty — would boost spending for the education department by $2.3 billion, or by nearly 8%, compared to what the department is expected to spend this fiscal year, budget documents show.

Details remained scarce, with the mayor promising more information in the next couple of weeks. A spokesperson for the education department added that schools would choose which assessments to use and that high-needs students will receive “targeted services.” 

“It’s going to take a lot more direct work with kids, it’s going to take bringing more personnel in to do that,” de Blasio told reporters of his plans to catch up students, “and that’s what that type of spending is going to allow us to do.”

The mayor’s $500 million plan for “intensive academic recovery” — funded entirely by federal pandemic relief for schools — is one of several education-related proposals that de Blasio will push for over the next two months, as his administration negotiates with the New York City Council on a final budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. 

For schools, this budget could be one of the most consequential during de Blasio’s tenure. City officials are grappling with how to meet the vast academic and mental health needs of students across the city, following two school years upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Federal relief dollars would fund many of the proposals de Blasio presented on Monday.

The proposal comes at a pivotal moment for the nation’s largest school system, where many questions remain unanswered: Will a critical mass of students learning from home come back to classrooms in the fall? (Roughly 60% remain fully remote.) Will the city continue to lose students after this year’s 4% drop in enrollment? Will the promise of more funding bolster confidence in a return to classrooms?

The mayor initially predicted a pessimistic budget outlook. But the city is now flush with cash, following a state funding boost and federal coronavirus relief packages. State aid will add $1.3 billion to city school coffers, on top of $6.9 billion in additional federal dollars, which can be used over the next three school years. The city plans to use about $3 billion in the next fiscal year, according to the education department.

It’s unclear what sort of testing schools will choose, though some schools labeled as struggling are already required to give their students exams to assess their progress. The city’s broad framework for how it plans to help students in the upcoming year, released in December, hinted at using personalized learning that tailors lessons based on a student’s progress, an approach that achieved mixed results across the country. 

City officials already announced some other ways they plan to spend the additional education dollars: to expand 3-K to every school district, to fund schools fully using the city’s funding formula, at $600 million annually, and to hold schools harmless for this year’s enrollment declines, costing the city $130 million this year.   

As City Council and some advocates requested, the budget restores funding that the mayor had previously proposed cutting, including for community schools and summer programs.

But City Council and City Hall may have a lot to iron out in the coming months. The mayor’s budget plan falls short of many priorities the City Council laid out, including $190 million to add 400 schools to the community school program. The mayor has proposed sending a little more than $10 million to expand the program this year and $51 million next year, which provides wraparound services for students and families. The city previously announced it planned to add 27 more community schools next year. On Monday, officials said the goal was to expand the program from 266 to 406 schools, but the timeline wasn’t immediately clear.

The Council has also called for spending $250 million on 2,500 additional teachers to reduce class sizes and another $110 million to place at least one full-time social worker and guidance counselor in each school. 

Here are some other notable highlights in de Blasio’s budget proposal:

Universal 3-K, with more seats earmarked for preschoolers with disabilities

Last month the mayor said the city would expand preschool for 3-year-olds to reach every school district. On Monday, he announced that the program would further increase its reach. De Blasio proposes spending $377 million next fiscal year to make 3-K available to all 3-year-olds by September 2023. 

Four years ago, the mayor had promised to make 3-K universal by 2021, but the pandemic pushed that timeline. Now, the city plans to fund this expansion primarily with new federal relief money, according to budget documents. In response to questions about whether funding investments with federal dollars will mean a financial burden for the next mayor, de Blasio said, “you have to spend money to make money.” That means he expects these proposals will help the economy rebound enough to generate future revenue to sustain these programs. But the budget watchdog Citizens Budget Commission criticized the plan’s reliance on federal funds without specifying how the city will cover future expenses.

Free, universal pre-K is arguably de Blasio’s biggest education achievement, though the program has left out thousands of students with disabilities who have not enjoyed equal access to early education seats. Many of them often sit at home without access to required instruction.

The mayor’s proposed budget earmarks $22 million to “expand early childhood special education.” In a technical briefing after the mayor’s press conference, city officials said this would “largely” meet the demand for seats at both city-run and community-based preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities; an education department spokesperson later said it would fulfill the “projected need.”

Makeup services for students with special needs

The proposed budget would also invest $236 million next fiscal year in compensatory services for students with special needs who have not received all of their mandated services, in addition to counseling, physical therapy, and speech therapy. 

Students with disabilities have struggled during the pandemic, and about one in four weren’t receiving all of the services they were entitled to during the first half of the school year. The city also faces a federal class-action lawsuit from Advocates for Children, which argues that thousands of students are owed makeup services and that the special education complaint process is too overwhelmed to handle those claims.

It was not immediately clear how city officials plan to identify which students need extra help and how the services would be distributed.

Scrapping plans to hire more school safety agents

De Blasio had considered adding 475 new school safety agents to patrol city schools, but officials said Monday the city would not move forward with the new hires, estimated to cost nearly $20 million.

The about-face comes after a senior education department official revealed, and then criticized, the planned hires at a City Council hearing, a rare public display of dissatisfaction with the mayor’s priorities. Student activists who pushed for reducing police presence in schools opposed hiring new school safety agents, currently overseen by the police department.

Still, big questions remain about the future of school policing, as the mayor has vowed to shift oversight of the force to the education department but has offered few details about what that would accomplish or how it would work. The move is not scheduled to take effect until well after de Blasio leaves office, leaving the implementation up to his successor.

Using federal relief money, the mayor’s budget proposal also restores the following:

  • $22 million for overtime pay for teachers, typically used to cover after-school activities or other services
  • $31 million for training for schools staff
  • $54 million for the mayor’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives, the umbrella under which programs such as universal pre-K and College Access for All were created. City officials did not immediately say which programs would benefit. 
  • $6 million in cuts to existing community schools, which partner with outside organizations to provide wraparound services for their students
  • $5.7 million for youth summer programs, known as Summer’s Out New York City. 

De Blasio’s administration and the City Council must reach a budget agreement and pass a final plan by July 1. 

Correction: Due to incorrect information in a city-issued press release, a previous version of this story incorrectly said the mayor was proposing to spend an additional $10 million next fiscal year on expanding community schools. The city is proposing to increase spending by $10 million for the current fiscal year and $51 million in the following year.
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