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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.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.