wish list

Assembly budget invests in college tuition, rejects governor’s ‘repeal’ of foundation aid

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie, after meeting with Assembly Democrats in 2015.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly made its education positions known on Monday night when it released its budget bill, embracing a college affordability agenda beyond what the governor has proposed, and calling for more funding for traditional public schools.

The education provisions in the bill are in keeping with the Assembly’s past stances. The chamber generally supports the Foundation Aid formula, designed to distribute school funding more equitably, takes a hard line on charter schools and wants to extend mayoral control. With those positions now established for this budget cycle, the Assembly will haggle with the Senate and the governor to hammer out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the highlights from the Assembly’s budget:

— The Assembly budget increases school aid by $1.8 billion, with a $1.4 billion increase in foundation aid. That’s more than the governor proposed. It also rejects the executive budget’s decision to not fully fund the foundation aid formula, calling that a “repeal,” and commits to a four-year phase-in.

— The Assembly budget would reconfigure state aid so state college students could use a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior scholarship offers free college tuition to full-time students at state colleges whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. It has been criticized for providing little additional help for low-income students who already have their tuition covered by state and federal aid, but need help paying for non-tuition expenses like books, rent and food. The Assembly budget would raise the cutoff for families to $150,00o per year  in the fourth year of the program.

Another provision in Cuomo’s college tuition plan calls for students to average 15 credits per semester. That measure has been called “punitive” by at least one Assembly member and has been criticized by the chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee. (Most SUNY students don’t graduate in four years.) The Assembly’s budget allows students to take two semesters of 12 credits during their college tenure. In addition, it increases the maximum TAP award, or the amount students receive in state aid.

— The Assembly’s budget is not kind to charter schools. In fact, it rejects benefits included in the executive budget and provides some strings of its own. The Assembly would freeze charter school tuition, rejects the idea to lift New York City’s charter school cap and includes provisions related to transparency, enrollment and discipline.

— Mayoral control is extended for seven years in the Assembly’s budget, but it’s not the Assembly that stands in the way of a longer extension for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It’s Republicans in the Senate who have forced the mayor into one-year extensions for the past two years.

— The Assembly’s budget would require New York City to study the admissions process at the city’s specialized high schools. Though the city has said it wants to increase diversity at the elite crop of schools, its efforts do not seem to be working. Only 10 percent of specialized high school offers went to black and Hispanic students this year, despite the fact that those students make up about 70 percent of the city’s total student population.

— The budget includes $15 million in grants for school districts with growing English Language Learner populations, earmarked to help improve graduation rates. That is another area where New York City has struggled recently. Though graduation rates improved overall in 2016, those for English Language Learners decreased by almost 10 percentage points. (The city argues that is a misleading statistic because when current and former ELL students are combined, 57 more students graduated this year.)

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.