it's a deal

Breaking: State lawmakers reach budget deal with big wins for charters, community schools

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

Updated — One year after New York’s state budget negotiations turned into a drag-out fight over teacher evaluations, lawmakers came to a less controversial deal that will send more money to New York City’s district and charter schools.

All told, education funding is set to increase by approximately $1.5 billion, officials said Thursday evening, a figure that falls $800 million short of what the Assembly and many advocates had hoped for but will allow school budgets to continue to grow.

Charter schools will get their own big boosts: Schools across the state will receive $430 more per student, and the rule requiring New York City to help some charter schools pay rent will become permanent.

And in a move that symbolizes recent shifts in state education policy, up to $175 million will be directed toward turning struggling schools into “community schools,” borrowing a school-improvement strategy that Mayor Bill de Blasio has favored.

“I believe that this is the best plan that the state has produced, if it’s passed, in decades, literally,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, who later called the budget “the largest single investment in education in the history of the state of New York, period.”

Here’s what else you need to know about the deal, which is likely to come to a final vote Friday.

  • Overall education funding: A billion-plus boost

New York is set to spend $24.8 billion on education aid next year — a $1.3 billion increase in school aid. Additional education-related funds bring the total increase in education spending to $1.5 billion, which is the number lawmakers are touting.

It’s more than the $1 billion increase in education spending that Gov. Cuomo proposed in January. That is good for New York City, which needed more than what was included in Cuomo’s plan to balance its education budget, according to a March report from the city’s Independent Budget Office, though it remains unclear whether the additional funds will be enough to cover the costs.

The raise continues years of school aid increases, and will push New York’s per-student spending even higher than its current average of $19,818.

But advocates pushing for the state to meet its funding commitments under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit were disappointed again. (The state would need to pay $4.4 billion to meet the lawsuit’s demands.) The number also falls short of the Democrat-led Assembly’s proposal for a $2.1 billion jump.

“This budget fails to address fundamental educational inequality based on both race and income,” said Billy Easton, the executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education.

  • Community schools: A new statewide priority

The budget includes $175 million in funding to help struggling schools offer services like health care and after-school programs. That money will be targeted carefully at schools that need it most, not just at needy districts, Cuomo said.

“The priority should be the schools that need the most help in this state,” Cuomo said.

Of the $175 million, $100 million is included within the Foundation Aid, the $600-million-plus portion of the education spending that favors low-income districts.

Still, the total is notable, and signals that the state’s budget has shifted from focusing on new policies meant to increase accountability for low-performing schools to one that focuses on providing specific resources to those schools.

The budget also includes $20 million for an initiative to help boys and young men of color, according to an Assembly spokesman.

  • Charter schools: More funding will flow

Charter schools got a big boost. The budget deal included $54 million to increase the amount charter schools receive per student, a number double what Cuomo proposed. That amounts to a $430 increase per student next year.

The increase earned plaudits from charter advocates, but is unlikely to please the state’s teachers union, whose executive vice president called the increased support for charter schools a “radical, last-minute change” in an email to members on Wednesday.

Officials did not mention a number of other proposals that have been floated during the budget negotiations on Thursday night, including a measure to withhold funding from charter schools that fail to serve a high percentage of high-needs students. In January, Gov. Cuomo had also proposed un-freezing the formula that determines most charter school funding for New York City charter schools, rather than simply increasing per-student spending.

  • ‘Receivership’ and teacher evaluations: No changes

Cuomo left the impression that two education measures that dominated the attention of state lawmakers last year were left untouched: the “receivership” law that outlines how low-performing schools could be put under the control of an outside leader or group, and the teacher evaluation law.

Last year, lawmakers increased the weight of state test scores in teacher evaluations. But after that sparked significant backlash, the Board of Regents passed an emergency regulation that decoupled test scores from evaluations.

The governor said the receivership law was not changed and that education funding will still be dependent on districts creating teacher evaluation plans, signaling no major changes to either law snuck into the budget deal.

Cuomo’s unwillingness to revisit either receivership or teacher evaluations is one sign of how unpopular the two issues have become.

  • The Gap Elimination Adjustment: Gone

That funding cut, which has had a greater impact on higher-income districts than on low-income districts like New York City, is gone, to no one’s surprise. The Senate, Assembly, and the governor all proposed ending the spending gap, which was put in place during the financial crisis.

This article has been updated to clarify that the budget increases school aid by about $1.3 billion, but total education funding by approximately $1.5 billion.

funding battle

After three years, the fight to spend more money on Tennessee schools inches toward trial

PHOTO: Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean
Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman looks over evidence during a 2015 trial. The Nashville judge is presiding over a school funding lawsuit that pits Tennessee's two largest districts against the state.

A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is one step closer to trial after a Nashville judge turned back the state’s second attempt in three months to derail the case.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last week stood by her decision from July to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on constitutional and legal grounds.

Her rulings mean that the case — which the state’s attorneys say “has few rivals in terms of its breadth and its cost” — is on track to go to trial next spring in Nashville.

If successful, the lawsuit could force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which at almost $5 billion already takes the largest chunk out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation last year.

Tennessee is among more than a half dozen states where lawsuits are winding their way through the courts over the quality of schools, the adequacy of funding, and whether some students are being shortchanged, especially as states raise academic standards without always increasing funding for resources and training to help students meet those benchmarks.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee has been an exception by adding $1.5 billion to the K-12 pot during his eight-year administration. But attorneys for Memphis and Nashville schools say the investment falls woefully short and that Tennessee isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

Both legal teams are lining up expert witnesses, whose testimony will provide the meat of the case. They already have filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and are scheduled to take depositions this fall.

“This case has been pending for over three years with the ultimate goal of getting to trial to make a ruling, and we are closer now than ever,” said attorney Charles Grant, who represents both districts through the Tennessee firm of Baker Donelson.

Tennessee still could appeal to a state court in an effort to sidestep Bonnyman’s rulings, but that would be highly unusual. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Herbert Slattery said Tuesday that the state is evaluating its options under Tennessee law.

The question of adequate school funding is different from one posed by several previous landmark cases in the 1980s and ‘90s that focused on whether Tennessee was funding schools equitably. This litigation is about the size of the funding pie, not just how it’s carved up.

In documents, the state called the adequacy argument “extraordinary” since the court is being asked, in essence, to order the Legislature to boost its spending on schools, which would “require either raising taxes or redirecting existing revenue from other state services, or possibly both.”

"We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education."Lori Patterson, attorney

Tennessee’s two earlier funding cases ended up at the State Supreme Court and forced the state to change its funding formula so that smaller and rural school systems now receive a greater share of money than they previously were getting.

If the current legal battle mirrors those cases, litigation likely will drag on for years through trial and appeals and end up again in the state’s highest court.

A trial itself could take weeks and even months. A recent trial over the adequacy of school funding in New Mexico consumed two months in court. Another trial on an adequacy claim in Connecticut lasted five months.

The decision by Nashville’s school board to join in the Memphis lawsuit slowed the process but also made the plaintiffs’ case stronger, said Lori Patterson, another attorney representing the school systems.

“They’re joining together to say education is not adequately funded from a constitutional standpoint,” she said. “We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.”

Theirs is not the only funding lawsuit pending in Chancery Court. Months before Shelby County Schools went to court, Hamilton County’s school board and six other districts in southeast Tennessee filed their own suit asking the court to order the Legislature to address a funding formula that they say leaves schools chronically underfunded. That case appears to have stalled, however, and representatives for the state and Hamilton County Schools had no comment on its status.

You can follow our coverage of this topic here.

Colorado Votes 2018

Tax breaks for the rich and a ‘bargain with the devil’: Colorado candidates for governor spar over education

PHOTO: Denver Post
Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton are competing to be Colorado's next governor.

Colorado’s Democratic candidate for governor is the founder of a charter school network, and the Republican candidate is a longtime supporter of charter schools and school choice. But their common support for charter schools belies strong differences in their education priorities.

Speaking to an audience of charter school leaders on Monday, both candidates highlighted where those policy disagreements might undermine their opponent’s stated support. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democrat, said the education policies supported by Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, the Republican, would take money from public schools, including charters.

For his part, Stapleton made sure to mention that Polis is endorsed by the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, an alliance he called “a bargain with the devil.”

The two men spoke Monday to the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Leadership Summit in the midst of a campaign that has been more dominated by health care and energy policy than education issues. This is in marked contrast to the Democratic primary, where candidates debated and attacked each other over degrees of support for or opposition to education reform policies.

Charter schools — publicly funded but independently run — have long enjoyed bipartisan support in Colorado as part of a broader education reform agenda. Charters have been praised for expanding options and raising achievement for students who are ill-served by traditional public schools and criticized for not serving all students and diverting money from other public schools. Teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, have often opposed the expansion of charter schools, where teachers are generally not unionized.

The candidates discussed school funding, school choice, and Amendment 73, a corporate and income tax increase on the November ballot that would raise $1.6 billion for K-12 education.

Stapleton and Polis are competing to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

Here’s what we heard:

On Amendment 73

Polis said he does not have a position on the tax increase and that he’ll work to increase funding to public education regardless of the outcome on Amendment 73.

“It’s not exactly what I would do or how I would form it, but if the people decide to move forward with that, I would make sure those resources reach the classroom and that charter schools were treated fairly,” he said. “If the people don’t like that proposal, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work with Republicans and Democrats and the business community and the charter school community and teachers to end decades of underfunding and underinvestment in our public schools.”

Unlike other Democratic candidates for governor, Polis did not make rolling back portions of Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep money generated by existing taxes a key part of his platform. He said Monday that if elected, he would allocate significantly more money for K-12 education out of the general fund.

How much money will go to education versus other needs is a constant debate in the legislature, with Republicans arguing that roads and other infrastructure needs have lost out.

Stapleton said he is “adamantly opposed” to Amendment 73 in part because there is not enough accountability for how the money would be spent. He pointed to rising administrative costs in many school districts, costs that have outpaced growth in enrollment, as well as the share of districts’ personnel budgets that goes toward paying pension costs.

“If you don’t earmark money, money finds its way to places you never expected and maybe not in the most effective way for kids or into the classroom,” he said.

As treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the pension system that put more of the responsibility for fixing unfunded liabilities on teachers and retirees. At the same time, many observers say pension costs are partially responsible for stagnation in teacher pay.

“I will do whatever I can through executive order to make it possible for everyone in this room to get line-item details on what’s being spent in any school district,” he said. “Until we get numbers and transparency, we won’t be able to get to the root of the problem.”

Colorado’s system of “local control” has granted school districts significant autonomy in everything from curriculum to salaries. Schools have to report how much they spend on administrative costs, but there is not consistency about what goes into that portion of the budget.

On expanding school choice

Colorado law allows students to enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but some parts of the state have far fewer options than others. And transportation remains a barrier everywhere to students who want to attend schools outside their neighborhood or town.

Without offering a detailed proposal, Polis said he wants to work on solving the transportation problem for Colorado students.

“That’s going to be an important part of taking the charter school movement to the next level,” he said. “You can’t take the transportation side out if you truly want the market mechanism of choice to lift all boats and improve student performance and make sure every child has access to a world-class education.”

He also demonstrated his experience with the nitty-gritty of charter school management by promising to protect charters that provide half-day kindergarten from having to renegotiate their contracts if he’s successful in funding full-day kindergarten.

Stapleton said he would send more money to charter schools authorized by the state’s Charter School Institute. These schools received an increase in a 2017 bill that gave more money from local tax increases to district-authorized charter schools, but they depend on the legislature to allocate that money every year.

And he promised to create a new state-level authorizer for charter schools whose districts were not interested in working with them. In a brief interview after the forum, he said he isn’t sure yet what that would look like or how it would differ from the Charter School Institute. The idea is not mentioned on his website’s education page.

“I will be an advocate for another board or entity being able to authorize charter schools,” he said. “In some school districts where you have failing public schools, there is a bias amongst some people on the school board who are predisposed to not have more competition in public education. The people that end up being the losers are the people who can least afford it.”

On why the other would be bad for education

Polis said two of Stapleton’s key education proposals — a tax holiday for school supplies and education savings accounts that would let parents save money tax-free to pay for music lessons, academic tutoring, career and technical education, and preschool — wouldn’t change fundamental inequalities but would reduce the money available to fund K-12 education.

“The problem in our state is where does that money come from,” he said. “It comes from public schools. So you’re actually taking money out of public school finance to say we’re going to create a tax break for wealthy families to pay for tutors.”

Stapleton said Polis cannot be counted on to support charter schools because he has been endorsed by the state teachers union. This endorsement came after the primary, during with the Colorado Education Association endorsed one of Polis’s opponents and contributed to attack ads that questioned his support for public education.

“My opponent is fully endorsed by the CEA, and I am very concerned about the CEA’s plan for education versus … charters’ plans for education,” Stapleton said as his final unprompted comment to the crowd. “I think that it’s a bargain with the devil, and I am proud that I am not endorsed by the CEA.”

Read both candidates’ responses to Chalkbeat’s education policy questionnaire.