the final countdown

State legislators are down to the wire to pass the budget. Here are the education items to watch

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address in 2017.

By the end of the week, lawmakers (may) have a deal on the big education funding issues facing the state, including how much to spend on public schools and whether college will become tuition-free for some New Yorkers.

It’s still unclear how everything shake out, especially as the state faces the prospect of federal budget cuts.

“In general, the policy issues are not the problem,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday afternoon, including college affordability in the mix of nearly settled policy issues. “The problem is spending.” (The speaker of the Assembly, on the other hand, said it was premature to consider anything settled since policy and spending are interconnected.)

The final details will decide whether the “foundation aid” formula will survive in its current form, if the city’s charter school cap will be lifted, and what rules the legislature will apply to any prospective tuition-free college plan. It is also unclear if the budget will pass before the deadline this year, since it could be delayed by federal upheaval or by legislators’ feud with the governor.

As lawmakers haggle and race toward an end-of-the-month deadline, here are the education issues we are watching.

Will the federal government interfere with education spending?

Cuomo cast doubt on whether the state could shoulder big spending increases, since it’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled federal government will slash New York’s overall funding. If that happens, one large increase that could be on the chopping block is education spending, Cuomo said.

“My position is we can handle modest adjustments in the budget,” Cuomo said. “We cannot handle dramatic increases.” The “two main areas” of spending, he noted, are Medicaid and education.

The governor has also raised the prospect of an “extender budget,” that could postpone action on spending.

The state devoted almost $25 billion to education spending this year. Cuomo’s proposed increase for education spending is $1 billion, which is lower than the increase proposed by the Senate ($1.2 billion), Assembly ($1.8 billion), or the state’s policymaking body ($2.1 billion).

The governor’s proposal also makes controversial changes to the “foundation aid” formula, which was designed, in part, to provide a boost to needier schools. Advocates call Cuomo’s change a “repeal” of foundation aid, though Cuomo’s office rejects that language.

Will the governor get his big free tuition package?

The governor indicated on Tuesday afternoon that college affordability was almost decided, saying “we basically have an agreement.”

But what’s in the deal?

The governor’s proposal, which he unveiled as his signature budget item this year, would provide free tuition at state schools for families making less than $125,000 per year. The Senate and the Assembly both presented different college affordability packages.

Leaders in the Senate suggested increasing the state’s current Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which can be used at both public and private colleges.

The Assembly’s budget allows students more flexibility to qualify for aid. Currently, the governor’s plan requires students to be full-time in order to receive funding, which is defined as averaging 15 credits per semester. The Assembly’s plan would allow students to take two 12-credit semesters.

The Assembly’s budget would also let students reserve a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses, instead of requiring that students use Pell grant money to fund tuition first. It would also let families making up to $150,000 per year take advantage of the plan in the fourth year of the program.

What’s at stake for charter schools?

The governor proposed lifting the charter school cap in New York City and creating one cap for the state. Charter school tuition could also be unfrozen this year.

The sticking point for both measures is the Assembly, whose budget rejects the governor’s proposals to provide more help to charter schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio also spoke out against the changes, arguing they shifted costs to the city “to an exorbitant degree.” (Charter school advocates reject that analysis.)

Additionally, the governor’s budget would provide more money to charter schools moving into private space.

Anything else that’s interesting?

Of course.

State officials will decide whether to provide more money for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help improve the education of boys and young men of color. Last year, the program got off the ground with $20 million and state officials said they’re looking for the same this year.

The State Education Department made a wish list of things they would like to see from the legislature. Among their priorities are changes to testing, including reinstating world language Regents exams and creating some project-based assessments.

Whether the legislature honors the Regents’ priorities is important because Chancellor Betty Rosa suggested her vision for rethinking education policy in New York state hinges on the ability to get funding from the legislature.

“As policymakers, we are very actively involved in saying: These are the areas that we are very concerned [about],” Rosa said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “We want to make sure that these are the areas that we get funding in order to move the educational agenda for the state forward.”

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.