spending plans

Cuomo budget: Funds for pre-K, technology, and merit pay

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Cuomo spoke to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last month before delivering his State of the State speech. Silver is among the many lawmakers calling for a pause on Common Core consequences.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing a school spending plan that would allocate an extra $807 million in state school aid — including through a teacher merit pay program and an expansion of pre-kindergarten funding.

Cuomo outlined his education priorities during a presentation today in Albany about his proposed budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Most of the priorities are familiar, having been floated in interviews, proposed in his State of the State speech or endorsed by his education advisors in recent weeks.

But an accompanying budget bill and funding allocations added new details and dollar signs to Cuomo’s rhetoric. And although no funding came with his comments, the governor dipped his toe into the state’s controversial rollout of Common Core standards after staying silent on the issue for months.

The prominence of education initiatives in this year’s budget proposal means that they are likely to be the scene of a showdown when Cuomo and legislators hash out a final budget, which must happen by April 1. How to fund the expansion of pre-K programs will likely be the biggest battleground, but it is by no means the only one. Here are other points of interest, and possible points of contention, in Cuomo’s education budget proposal.

  • State education funding: Cuomo’s 2014-2015 budget includes $21.9 billion for the next school year, an overall increase of 3.8 percent — or $807 million, a substantially smaller school aid increase than he proposed last year. Most of the total, $682 million, would go toward a general pot of funds that gets distributed to districts through several funding streams based on their need. The sum is less than the Board of Regents’ $1 billion request and a fraction of the $1.9 billion total that some lawmakers and advocates are aggressively pushing for.
  • Pre-kindergarten: A portion of next year’s funds, $100 million, would be set aside for districts that have the capacity to add more universal kindergarten seats. It is an alternative proposal to the locally-funded tax plan proposed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said today that he would continue to push his funding strategy anyway. Cuomo’s proposal calls for an overall $1.5 billion investment in pre-K over five years, the length of de Blasio’s pre-K plan. De Blasio’s allies immediately responded by saying Cuomo’s allocation wouldn’t be enough even for New York City.
  • After-school program funding: Cuomo is also hoping to allocate $720 million in funding over five years for after school programs — tackling the other portion of de Blasio’s tax proposal. But the spending wouldn’t start until the 2015-2016 school year. De Blasio has proposed lengthening the school day for middle schools using the same tax revenue that would fund universal pre-K, beginning as soon as this fall.
  • Teacher merit pay: Teachers who receive “highly effective” ratings on their most recent evaluations would be eligible for up to $20,000 in a one-time bonus as part of a grant program — called a “Teacher Excellence Fund” — that Cuomo wants to fund with $20 million next year. According to proposed legislation, districts would be more likely to win a grant if they promise to pay top teachers to work in high-need schools, to fill high-need subject areas, or to stay in the classroom instead of leaving for another position. City and teachers union officials were cool to Cuomo’s proposal when he first aired it earlier this month.
  • Classroom technology and pre-K facilities: As he indicated in his State of the State address, Cuomo will push for the passage of a $2 billion technology bond that voters would have to approve in November. The borrowed funds would help schools upgrade and enhance their high-speed wireless capacity and purchase computers, servers, interactive whiteboards and tablets for their classrooms. A new detail today is that the bond would also fund facility construction for pre-K programs.
  • Pre-K for charter schools: Charter schools would be able to get a slice of Cuomo’s universal pre-kindergarten funding, he said today in his presentation. Cuomo’s education reform commission proposed the policy shift, which will require legislation to allow, last week, immediately drawing praise from charter school advocates.
  • Fund more P-TECHs: Cuomo wants to spend an additional $5 million next year to duplicate the much-praised model established at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn. The school model serves high-need students and partners with colleges and companies to prepare them for careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  • Common Core reform: It won’t show up anywhere in his proposed budget bills, but Cuomo said he’s jumping into the state’s controversial rollout of new Common Core standards. The topic has been hotly debated over the last year by state education officials and lawmakers, but Cuomo stood noticeably on the sidelines. He declined to mention the issue in his State of the State speech two weeks ago, raising eyebrows among advocates on both sides of the debate. Today, he acknowledged that the implementation “has been flawed” and said he would convene his own panel to review possible changes.
  • A ban on bubble tests: Cuomo mostly steered clear of teacher evaluations, which figured prominently into his budget plans in the last two years. But he did endorse an increasingly popular proposed ban on standardized testing for kindergarten through second grades, which some districts have used to measure student learning for teacher evaluations. The bill has already been proposed in both the Assembly and the State Senate and endorsed by the State Education Department, teachers unions, and the city education department.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”