Who Is In Charge

Buried in the budget, Cuomo proposes controversial change to school funding formula

A funding formula designed to give more money to high-need schools has been altered under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal, to the consternation of several advocacy groups.

The “foundation aid” formula — which the state created in response to a lawsuit claiming that school funding inequities deny students a sound basic education — has been a heated topic for years. Advocates have long argued the state has not fulfilled its promise to help equalize funding for lower-income districts, including New York City. If the formula were fully run this year, for instance, New York City would be due an additional $1.9 billion, they say.

The governor’s controversial proposal would not include a commitment to fully phase in the total funding advocates say is owed statewide, which the State Education Department estimates at about $4.3 billion this year. Some advocates say Cuomo’s changes constitute a “repeal” of foundation aid.

State officials say the characterization is unfair. The full funding owed under the foundation formula was always meant to be a goal, is not legally binding and is not currently realistic, officials from the governor’s office said. Moreover, the governor has allotted a $428 million increase for foundation aid in his budget proposal this year, and there is no indication he will not continue to increase that number in future years, they said.

“Any suggestion that the foundation aid formula has or will be eliminated is a direct attempt to mislead the public and factually untrue,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.

Advocates also say the change could increase uncertainty for districts.

From the language in the budget, it appears that starting next year, the state will use a new formula that could potentially change every year, according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. The council’s Deputy Director Robert Lowry says that substitutes a transparent decision-making process for one that is more unreliable for school districts. (State officials argued that the budget already changes every year, so districts can never be sure how much aid they will receive.)

Until now, it seemed as if advocates were making headway in obtaining the full funding they say schools should receive. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie suggested establishing a timetable for fully implementing the formula and the state’s Board of Regents suggested a three-year full phase-in.

Some of the changes made to the formula were praised by advocates this year, including Cuomo’s proposal to alter the way the state calculates poverty. But for many, that news was outweighed by this new proposal, which they see as a way for the governor to avoid ever fully phasing in the original foundation aid formula.

“The governor has proposed a Jekyll and Hyde approach to school aid,” stated Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials, “that on one hand makes improvements to the foundation aid formula … and on the other hand eviscerates the foundation aid formula by severing the connection with the full phase-in amount.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: