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.

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.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.