Four education proposals that could come in Cuomo's State of the State address

In the leak-filled lead up to Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech this afternoon, which will set his legislative agenda for the year, his education policy ambitions have stayed largely under wraps.

But education will still be an important issue this year for Cuomo, according to a report this morning from Capital New York, which was briefed on the speech’s main themes. Education, according to the report, will be featured prominently as a way to project “a socially progressive” agenda that “is not afraid to cut taxes.”

Unlike last year, Cuomo won’t have a menu of proposals that had been vetted by his education reform commission a week before his 2013 address. In that report, the commission recommended a host of ideas, including community schools, longer school days, and expanded pre-kindergarten, that Cuomo turned into policy using small competitive grants.

So what’s in store for this year’s speech, set to take place in just a couple hours? Here are four education initiative we’re hearing Cuomo could feature as he tinkers with his speech this morning:

1. A professional development fund

Support for educators is fast becoming one of the most bipartisan issues headed into the 2014 legislative session. After a bumpy — a friendly word for it, some would say — implementation of Common Core standards, policy makers are universally calling for more funding to support schools during the transition. The State Education Department has proposed $125 million for a “core instructional development fund” and Republican state senator John Flanagan has endorsed similar funding. In New York City, education officials have said more time for professional development is priority when negotiations over a new teacher contract begins.

Cuomo is expected to announce a professional development fund in his speech, according to a person who has been briefed on his remarks this morning. It’s unclear how much he’ll be proposing to put into it — a spokesman did not respond to questions seeking more specific details — but at any price point, the proposal is likely to find supporters on all sides of the education aisle.

2. Education technology funding

Finding money to narrow the education technology gap for poor school districts will be among the priorities in Cuomo’s speech, according to the source who has been briefed. It comes at a time when New York could be just a few years away from adopting online testing that would require schools to bulk up their computing infrastructure. An $89 million windfall of funds is being made available to schools with many low-income students thanks to a lawsuit settlement from last year. But officials say that’s not nearly enough to equalize access to classroom technology.

The State Education Department has made a similar request. Its state aid proposal last month included $50 million for “enhanced technology and textbook aid.”

One way Cuomo could seek to fund his proposal is through social impact bonds, which he has embraced for other government programs recently. Last year, investors in the private sector raised $13.5 million to fund a social impact bond program focused on reducing prison recidivism rates. If the program is successful, the private investors will earn a profit.

3. Pre-kindergarten

Mayor Bill de Blasio will be in the audience in Albany and will be among the people anxiously waiting to hear what Cuomo has to say about pre-kindergarten. Cuomo has downplayed the anticipation, shooting down a news report that he planned to float an alternative funding proposal to expand pre-kindergarten — one that doesn’t rely on new revenue as de Blasio’s plan to raise taxes on the city’s highest earners does.

The anticipation is a signal of the showdown that is mounting between Cuomo and de Blasio on the issue. The two leaders agree on the idea of expanding access early education, seen as crucial for preparing high-need children for school, but disagree sharply on the way to fund it. De Blasio has recruited a host of labor leaders and education advocates to back his plan, estimated to cost $340 million annually for 50,000 new full-day seats. So far, Cuomo is said not to be swayed.

What he says on the issue — if he says much at all — could be a preview at how aggressively he plans to negotiate the issue in public.

4. State aid reallocation

Cuomo’s early approach to education funding was that state aid increases should be limited and districts should use their existing resources more efficiently. But last year he broke his self-imposed cap to increase addition state funds to the formula that distributes aid based on districts’ needs, and he has indicated that he’s willing to do the same thing this year.

The big question is just how much more aid districts will get. The State Education Department asked for a total increase of $1.3 billion, with about $1 billion of that going straight to districts and the remaining portion going to professional development fund. And the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that has long pressed for increased education spending, says nothing short of $1.9 billion in additional school aid will get schools back to their funding level from before the 2008 recession. It’s unclear whether Cuomo will match the education department’s ask, but it’s safe to assume that his funding proposal won’t come close to AQE’s.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks with reporters Tuesday about his budget amendment, which includes $30 million for a school safety plan.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra projects this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed spending $27 million on safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. The possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers will soon begin campaigning for re-election this fall.)

Education already was receiving a solid bump in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January. His budget for 2018-19 allocates an extra $212 million for K-12 schools, including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to equip school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets, as several legislative proposals have tried to do. Haslam acknowledged that it’s just a beginning.

“Is it the final solution on school bus safety? No, but it does [make a start],” he said.

The governor presented his school spending plan to lawmakers on the same day that one House panel was scheduled to consider whether to give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, easily cleared its first legislative hurdle on Feb. 28 and has since amassed close to 50 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors in the House.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”