funding fight continues

Have supporters of a lawsuit demanding billions in school funds finally found their moment?

Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity gather before their 150-mile walk from New York City to Albany.

Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are celebrating their 10-year anniversary with what has become a familiar ritual: fighting for funding they’ve already won.

More than 20 parents, students and educators are marching 150 miles from New York City to Albany to demand the state pay billions of dollars they say New York’s schools are owed under the terms of a 2006 settlement.

The suit argued that the state needed to increase education funding in needy school districts in order to provide all students with a sound basic education. But after the recession hit, the will to funnel billions more into schools waned.

This is not the first time supporters have tried to draw attention to the missing funds. The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), an organization founded to further the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, has lobbied the legislature for years, released multiple reports, and created a database that shows how much individual schools should be paid under the settlement.

Still, after years of organizing, schools across the state are still short $3.9 billion they’re entitled to under the settlement, which includes $1.6 billion for New York City alone, according to the latest AQE report.

Yet, supporters say this could be a moment for change. In recent years, the state’s political winds have shifted — and backers of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity say the shift is in their favor.

After years of turmoil over state education reforms, last year’s legislative session saw a renewed focus on school funding. Plus, the new chancellor of New York state’s Board of Regents, Betty Rosa, has signaled she is on board to fight for more resources. And schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña brought up the funding gap in her testimony to state officials last year.

Any serious funding increase still faces an uphill battle in the legislature, but Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said legislators may be ready to revisit the matter.

“We had a lot of other issues that really sucked up a lot of the air in Albany,” Easton said. “All of these things that were kind of clogging up the air space are cleared away.”

If you’re looking to get up to speed, here’s a quick history of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity:

  • In 2006, after a 13-year fight, a New York State Court of Appeals ruled the state owed schools more money in order to provide students with a “sound basic education.”
  • The state set out to provide billions in funds to comply with the lawsuit in 2007 and 2008.
  • But in 2009, the recession caused the plans to stall. During that year, some wondered if the campaign had failed to deliver on its promise.
  • In 2011, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity almost dissolved before becoming part of the Education Law Center. The campaign’s struggle was seen as reflective of a greater shift in education advocacy. “The old mantra was that urban districts failed because they have been historically underfunded; now, advocates are more likely to argue that funding is necessary but not sufficient,” Chalkbeat wrote at the time.
  • The next few years were dominated by other education reforms. For instance, the state fought for Race to the Top funding, adopted Common Core and revised teacher evaluations.
  • Last year, the state began backing away from those reforms, and the legislative session seemed to refocus on school funding. The state restored the Gap Elimination Adjustment (a funding cut that mainly hurt wealthier districts) and overall, oversaw a $1.3 billion increase in school aid.
  • Still, state officials did not fully restore the money owed to schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. “This budget fails to address fundamental educational inequality based on both race and income,” Easton said at the time.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks with reporters Tuesday about his budget amendment, which includes $30 million for a school safety plan.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra projects this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed spending $27 million on safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. The possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers will soon begin campaigning for re-election this fall.)

Education already was receiving a solid bump in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January. His budget for 2018-19 allocates an extra $212 million for K-12 schools, including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to equip school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets, as several legislative proposals have tried to do. Haslam acknowledged that it’s just a beginning.

“Is it the final solution on school bus safety? No, but it does [make a start],” he said.

The governor presented his school spending plan to lawmakers on the same day that one House panel was scheduled to consider whether to give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. That bill, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, easily cleared its first legislative hurdle on Feb. 28 and has since amassed close to 50 lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors in the House.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

More money

What Colorado’s booming economy might mean for the state education budget

More money is forecast to appear below the gold dome (Denver Post photo).

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to put an extra $200 million into education next year and another $100 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, but a lot of that money could go to offset hits to districts from anticipated reforms to the state’s pension program and reductions in local tax revenue.

The proposal comes in response to new economic forecasts released Monday that show Colorado having more money than previously expected.

Legislative economists predict that lawmakers will have a whopping $1.3 billion or 11.5 percent more to spend or save in 2018-19 than is budgeted in 2017-18. The forecast from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget predicts similar increases in revenue. After meeting the reserve requirement of 6.5 percent, Colorado will have an additional $492 million in reserve for this fiscal year, and even with a higher reserve of 8 percent proposed for next fiscal year, the state would have an additional $548.1 million in 2018-19. 

It’s normal for the forecasts to be slightly different because the economic analysts often use slightly different assumptions. In this case, the governor’s office predicts that the additional revenue will be more spread out over this fiscal year and the next one, while legislative economists think more of the money will be coming in next year. That difference means the legislative forecast shows the state potentially hitting the revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, despite lawmakers making more room under the cap just last year, while the governor’s forecast does not.

These are the numbers that the Joint Budget Committee has been waiting for to finalize its recommendations for the 2018-19 budget year. Republicans and advocates for more transportation spending have already seized on the numbers to support a plan to ask voters to approve new debt to pay for road construction and dedicate up to $300 million a year to pay off that debt.

Of course, these forecasts are also inherently speculative – and legislative economists warned these forecasts contain even more uncertainty than usual.

State Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, summed up the message as one of caution about dedicating too much of the new revenue to ongoing expenses. The more that gets committed, the harder it will be for the state to meet all of those commitments in future years.

Those who want to see Colorado spend more on K-12 education have pushed back on the Republican roads bill out of fear that the commitment could make it harder to send more money to schools in the future.

The governor’s budget director Henry Sobanet recommended treating much of this new money as “one-time” funds that should go to “one-time” uses. In a letter to the Joint Budget Committee, he laid out a plan.

In the case of roads spending, he’s recommending an extra $500 million for road construction in 2018-19, but only $150 million in 2019-20. And in the case of education, he’s recommending an additional $200 million in 2018-19 and an additional $100 million the following year.

However, this extra money might not show up in classrooms – or rather, it might show up in a lack of cuts rather than new money.

The governor’s budget request already called for a reduction in the budget stabilization factor of $100 million. That’s the amount by which Colorado underfunds K-12 education compared to the requirements of Amendment 23. In this budget year, it’s $822 million, after a mid-year adjustment. Some of the extra money could go toward reducing it even further.

However, Sobanet said he envisions most of it going to offset reductions in local property tax revenue that will be caused by a provision of the Colorado constitution that governs the ratio between residential and commercial property tax revenue.

It’s also possible that school districts could end up having to pay more toward some sort of agreement on changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA. The final form of reforms to PERA is far from certain.

“Another downgrade in the residential assessment rate means more state share to keep total per pupil spending up,” Sobanet said. “We know that since the December announcement of property taxes and since we know PERA might be on the table for something, let’s set aside some resources and make sure we can handle this.”