state of the state

Gov. Cuomo unveils plan to expand community schools, urges scrutiny of charter enrollment

PHOTO: NYS Governor's Office/Flickr
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 State of the State address Wednesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed boosting state education spending, particularly for troubled schools, in an agenda-setting speech Wednesday that shied away from the contentious education proposals that defined last year’s address.

His most significant proposal was a $100 million plan to convert struggling schools into resource-filled “community” schools. He also called for more funding and oversight for charter schools, a $2.1 billion increase in school funding over the next two years, and a series of changes to the Common Core learning standards, which a state panel recommended last month.

The changes include a temporary ban on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, which marks a reversal from Cuomo’s proposal in last year’s State of the State address to increase the weight of test scores in evaluations. Cuomo did not mention the evaluations on Wednesday, but instead blamed the state education department for a bungled rollout of the standards and assessments, which he suggested had fueled parents’ massive test boycott last year.

The changes are necessary to restore the public’s faith in the state’s education system, he said.

“The education system fails without parental trust,” he said during his roughly two-hour budget and policy speech.

Groups that say the state’s urban schools are severely underfunded were disappointed by Cuomo’s proposed budget increase, while charter school groups were pleased with the idea of extra funds. His more modest education plans this year avoided the fierce attacks by critics that last year’s speech provoked — particularly the state teachers union, which called last year’s speech “intellectually hollow” and “misguided.”

On Wednesday, the union called Cuomo’s latest address “a starting point that sets a positive tone for public education.”

More funding for community schools

The governor wants to earmark $100 million to expand the number of “community” schools, which would provide before-and-after school mentoring, summer activities, and health services to students.

Of that $100 million, $75 million will be allocated to the 17 districts that have schools the state has designated as struggling based on their low test scores or graduation rates. (Last year, only “persistently struggling” schools were eligible to receive a portion of $75 million set aside for turnaround efforts.)

New York City has led the charge on creating community schools. Adding extra support services to struggling schools is at the center of the city’s “Renewal” improvement program, which predated the state’s turnaround effort.

More funding, and enrollment scrutiny, for charter schools

Cuomo, a longtime supporter of the charter-school movement, had mixed messages for charter schools.

He made it clear that he supports the development of more charter schools. His budget proposal increases funding for charter schools by $27 million and will allow the per-pupil funding formula for charter schools to change. (The state’s charter law has frozen per-pupil spending in recent years, frustrating charter advocates who note that their budgets haven’t increased even as district school budgets have.)

“Governor Cuomo’s proposal is a vital element of fixing funding inequity for charter schools,” the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools said in a statement.

He also said he wants state officials to examine the enrollment and retention policies at charter schools. There’s been “anecdotal evidence of troubling practices,” the budget materials read.

That could be a shot at Success Academy, the largest charter school network in New York City, which has been under scrutiny recently after one principal created a “Got to Go” list of troublesome students.

Common Core, state tests, and a final flip-flop

The governor officially accepted all 21 recommendations of made by his Common Core task force in December. It recommended editing the controversial learning standards, especially those for the youngest students, and a number of changes to state tests. The task force also recommended suspending the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations.

Cuomo’s endorsement of the suggestions represents a complete reversal of his policy on teacher evaluations. Last year he used his State of the State Speech to call for tougher teacher evaluations. At Cuomo’s urging, the legislature passed a law that required standardized testing counted for about half a teacher’s evaluation.

The law helped spark a state test opt-out movement that included 20 percent of public school students statewide.

Funding

The governor proposed a $2.1 billion increase in state aid to schools over the next two years and a $1 billion increase this year. Cuomo’s materials boast that the allocation would increase school aid to the highest level in history, though it’s lower than the Board of Regents proposal for $2.4 billion in the 2016-17 school year.

It’s also lower than what many education interest groups want. The New York State Educational Conference Board, which is comprised of groups like the state teachers union and the council of school superintendents, suggested a $2.2 billion increase.

Cuomo also proposed eliminating the $434 million Gap Elimination Adjustment, which cut education funding during the financial crisis based on a formula that took a district’s share of high-needs students into account.

Mayoral control

With mayoral control of New York City’s schools set to expire this year, the governor said Wednesday that he supports a three-year extension.

He also supported a three-year extension last January, but ended up renewing the law for only a year amid a public feud between with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who accused Cuomo of using mayoral control as a “political football.”

The mayor struck a more conciliatory tone after governor’s speech.

“I would say this is a system that should be locked in for the long-term, or certainly extended on a longer basis,” de Blasio said in a press conference after the speech, “but I appreciate that the governor put forward a specific number.”

Pre-kindergarten

The budget included an additional $22 million for pre-kindergarten programs specifically for three year olds. The investment should create 2,000 to 2,500 new pre-K seats across the state.

Cuomo also supports additional monitoring of pre-K programs. An additional $2 million would support QUALITYstarsNY, a program that reviews early education programs. In the past, pre-K sites didn’t have to use the program. Under Cuomo’s plan, those serving high-needs students would be required to participate or lose state funding.

New York City, where de Blasio has made the expansion of pre-K a signature issue, is using its own system to review individual pre-K programs. Last month, the city announced results from its first review, which indicated that about 77 percent of pre-K programs were meeting a benchmark that shows positive impact on students.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.