Big money

Senate releases budget plan, weighing in on school funding saga and rejecting Cuomo’s ‘Excelsior Scholarship’ proposal

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

As state lawmakers approach the budget deadline of April 1, the three big proposals are now on the table.

The Senate passed a budget proposal on Wednesday that includes a new vision for college affordability, a different take on school funding, and more support for charter schools. Now that the Senate, Assembly and governor’s proposals are public, the three will begin hammering out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the education proposals championed by the Senate:

— The Senate education proposal increases total school aid by $1.2 billion. That’s more than the $1 billion increase that the governor proposed, but less than the Board of Regents ($2.1 billion) or the Assembly ($1.8 billion) requested.

The Senate also addresses “foundation aid” — school funding that is distributed through a formula based on need. The formula was created in response to a 2006 settlement in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found state funding levels were not always sufficient to provide a sound basic education.

It has generated extra controversy this year after Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed not fully phasing in the formula, a move some advocates described as a “repeal” of the agreement. Instead of picking sides, the Senate opted for a new way to allocate funds.

The Senate proposes providing more foundation aid than the governor, but divvying up that money among new funding streams. Funds would be specifically earmarked for New York City, community schools, small cities and rural districts among other entities, according to Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that has long fought for increased school funding.

Easton says from his initial read of the proposal, this new formula would result in less funding for New York City than under the current formula.

“The goal is to drive money away from New York City and other high-needs school districts,” Easton said.

— The Senate rejects the governor’s “Excelsior Scholarship” — a plan that provides free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools to families making less than $125,000 per year — but provides a college affordability plan of its own.

Its plan invests in the state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program, which can be used at both public and private colleges. The governor’s plan has been criticized for disadvantaging private colleges.

The benefits of the Senate’s plan would fall mostly on middle- and upper middle-income families, said Kevin Stump, Northeast regional director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues. Families earning about $50,000 to $125,000 would benefit the most, while some lower-income students would see an increase of a few hundred dollars per year, he said. As with the governor’s plan, the money comes with strings attached. In this case, he said, it includes a requirement that students take 30 credits each year and meet GPA standards.

— To nobody’s surprise, the Senate’s budget provides strong support for charter schools. It carries over the perks in the governor’s executive budget, including lifting the charter school cap in New York City, unfreezing the charter school tuition formula and providing additional funding to New York City charter schools moving into private space.

But the Senate goes further than the governor in its backing of charter schools. It calls for lifting the charter school cap statewide, providing building aid statewide, and increasing funding so schools can cover the expenses of support staff, like nurses or security guards, said Greg Berck, assistant director of government relations at the Council of School Superintendents.

“Members of the New York State Senate … have once again shown their incredible commitment to charter school families,” said Northeast Charter Schools Network New York State Director Andrea Rogers. “We are grateful for this bipartisan coalition of senators who understand the importance of investing in charter schools that are working and respecting the choices of the families that choose them.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.