tech crunch

Cuomo wants N.Y. voters to approve $2 billion for school technology

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address today in Albany.

If Andrew Cuomo has his way, voters will do more this fall than reelect him to a second term as governor of New York State. They’ll also approve a $2 billion bond to pay for classroom technology costs that could balloon in coming years.

The proposal was among the most substantial schools-related offerings in Cuomo’s 2014 State of the State speech today. Nestled among proposals to expand pre-kindergarten and give bonuses to top-rated teachers, the technology proposal also reflected the most specificity about funding.

Under the plan, voters would let state borrow $2 billion that would go directly toward making schools wireless, buying tablets and wired whiteboards, and expanding programs that allow students to use technology to learn at their own pace.

The purchases would come at a time when the state’s anticipated move toward online testing aligned to new Common Core standards promises to put new pressures on schools’ technology infrastructure. Schools are also increasingly turning to “blended learning,” which includes some work done online, to tailor instruction to individual students.

So far, Cuomo said, some schools and districts have been able to keep up with the changes, while poorer school districts are being left behind.

“There are some schools where there are sophisticated new computer systems starting in first grade,” Cuomo said. “There are some schools where the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector that you walk through on your way to the classroom.”

He added, “If you aren’t on the information superhighway it can leave you behind at a hundred miles per hour.”

The $2 billion bond, called “Smart Schools,” would need to be put up to a referendum, much like the casino construction referendum that was passed during last year’s election. First, however, the state would need to pass legislation to allow it to put it up for a vote.

“Let’s go to the people of this state,” Cuomo said. “Let’s go to them in November. Let’s put on the ballot a bond referendum for the Smart Schools initiative.”

Cuomo was far less specific about how he would fund other education initiatives floated during the speech. As anticipated, he endorsed the idea of expanding access to full-day pre-kindergarten throughout the state, but he did not say where the funds to cover “truly universal” pre-K would come from. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, sitting in the audience, has proposed an income tax hike on the city’s highest earners to pay for pre-K expansion, a plan that Cuomo has reportedly rejected.

Cuomo also reprised ideas for competitive grants to school districts to retain high-performing teachers expand career-oriented schools that are like Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School.

Cuomo also said he would propose legislation to require state education officials to notify law enforcement agencies if they are made aware of any religious or racial perception in schools. He said the fact that state officials learned about alleged anti-Semitism in the upstate Pine Bush district from a New York Times report had prompted him to act.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

What's fair

Colorado’s state-authorized charter schools could get more money next year

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Charter schools authorized at the state level by the Charter School Institute are likely to get more money in the 2018-19 budget year. That’s one year before most other charter schools will see benefits from last year’s charter school funding equity bill.

That bill was a major compromise out of the 2017 session, and it requires school districts to share money from voter-approved tax increases with the charter schools they’ve authorized, starting in 2019-20. The bill also created the mill levy equalization fund to distribute state money to the Charter School Institute’s 41 schools. Because no local school board approved these schools, they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for revenue from these increases, known as mill levy overrides.

Charter School Institute administrators came calling for their money this year, though, with a request for $5.5 million from the general fund. They arrived at this number by identifying institute schools within the geographic boundaries of districts that already share some extra revenue with their local charters and assuming institute schools got a similar share.

Institute Executive Director Terry Croy Lewis called it a “first step” toward parity that would bring institute and district-authorized charter schools to the same level in advance of the new law going fully into effect in 2019. Lewis said it seemed like a fair approach because the parents at institute-authorized schools often live within the geographic boundary and pay taxes at the same rates as parents whose children go to traditional schools or district-authorized charters.

However, the charter equity bill says that extra money for institute schools has to be distributed on an equal per-pupil basis. The original approach, which created more equity among schools in the same geographic boundary, created more disparities among institute schools in different regions – and the law might not have allowed it.

“I don’t think you can define equity in this conversation because equity cuts a lot of different ways,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and member of the Joint Budget Committee.

Budget analyst Craig Harper suggested to the Joint Budget Committee that separate legislation might be necessary to allow the distribution proposed by the Charter School Institute, something no lawmakers wanted to see after the bruising fight over the charter school equity bill.

Instead, the Charter School Institute revised its proposal to distribute the money among its schools on a per-pupil basis, regardless of geography and whether the local district already shares money.

What sort of difference does this make?

In the first distribution scenario, Early College of Arvada, located in the Westminster district, would have gotten nothing – because Westminster doesn’t currently share money with its own charters. Under the new proposal, the school would get $131,233 based on its pupil count. Meanwhile, Colorado Early College – Fort Collins, which would have gotten $621,357 because the Poudre district already shares money, would instead get just $374,952

Lingering confusion over the distribution question led JBC members to postpone a decision several times before they voted 4-2 this week to include the $5.5 million request in the 2018-19 budget.

It still has to survive the extended battle over the budget that takes place in the full House and Senate each year.