funding fun

After heated debate, New York charter schools receive boost; school aid increases by $1.1 billion

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse.

More than a week after the state’s budget deadline, lawmakers resolved their differences on education with a per-pupil increase in charter school funding and a $1.1 billion increase in school aid.

The funding tug-of-war between charters and traditional public schools boiled over into a contentious fight this year, which contributed to the most delayed budget on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s watch.

Charter schools were due a big funding boost if lawmakers did not act, a concern for the Democrat-controlled Assembly and teachers unions. Meanwhile, Cuomo warned that the state might not be able to handle a large increase in education spending with possible federal cuts on the horizon.

In the end, despite the long haul, the set of compromises seems to have left each party at least fairly satisfied. Charter schools will get extra funding and will have future aid linked to spending on traditional public schools. State aid for education, more broadly, will increase by more than $1 billion. The state’s teachers union called the budget “all in all, progress for our students.”

Here’s more on each of the big education items announced in this year’s budget:

Charter schools get funding boost, increases will be linked to those for public schools

The deal will increase funding for charter schools by $500 per pupil, and starting in the 2018-19 school year, “tuition” funding paid by the state will increase at the same rate as public school spending.

That compromise was struck, in part, in response to a charter school tuition formula that has been frozen since 2010-11 (though some years charter schools have received supplemental aid). The formula was set to unfreeze this year and would have resulted in a $1,500 increase in per-pupil spending, which Cuomo called a “windfall” for charter schools. (Charter school advocates say it is important to achieve equitable funding between traditional public schools and charters.)

One major problem with that plan, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, was that the extra funding was set to come out of the city’s budget. (New York City’s Office of Management and Budget estimated it would cost the city about $200 million.)

The final result strikes a middle ground. The state will cover the extra $500 per pupil in the upcoming school year, but starting the next year, when charter school tuition increases mirror district school increases — and that money will come out of the city’s coffers.

There is another benefit for charter schools in the state’s budget: more funds for schools moving into private space. Under a 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent. Now, that number has jumped to 30 percent.

Finally, Cuomo proposed lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in New York City in January and instead having one big cap for the entire state. That proposal was rejected, leaving only 30 additional charter school slots for the city — and perhaps a battle for another year.

Most charter advocates are pleased with the outcome. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman called it a “major victory.”

“This budget agreement was hard fought and we deeply appreciate the tenacious commitment of Governor Cuomo, Majority Leader Flanagan and Coalition Leader Klein to treat public charter school students fairly,” said Merriman said in a statement.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz disagreed with that assessment, saying the agreement “shortchanged” students in charter schools.

Total school aid spending a bit below proposals

School aid is set to increase by $1.1 billion, bringing total education spending to $25.8 billion.

That is slightly below expectations. It is close to what the governor originally proposed — a $1 billion increase — but it is less than what the Assembly or Senate proposed, $1.8 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively. It is also far below what state’s education policymaking body proposed at $2.1 billion.

Late in March, Cuomo suggested the threat of federal cuts could limit education spending, since he was not sure the budget could handle “dramatic increases” with federal uncertainty.

Foundation aid is here to stay

A major portion of education spending is allocated through a “foundation aid” formula, which is designed to help to needy students. The formula was created in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found some New York children did not have access to a sound basic education.

This year’s increase in foundation aid is $700 million, though advocates argue the total increase should be much higher, given the amount they say is owed under the lawsuit: $4.3 billion in all. The state’s Board of Regents outlined an “aggressive” plan to have the state provide that full amount over three years.

But advocates are relieved the “foundation aid” formula itself will remain intact. Cuomo’s original proposal included a controversial change to the formula that several advocates called a “repeal.” That’s off the table this year and an additional increase is expected next year, according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director Robert Lowry. But it remains to be seen whether the total amount of funding will be fully phased in over the years to come, especially since Cuomo’s office disagrees that the money is owed to schools.

“In a major victory, Governor Cuomo’s plan to repeal the foundation aid formula was defeated,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for increased school funding. “The foundation aid increase is modest, but it is a significant improvement on the truly meager foundation aid proposal offered by the governor.”

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those who have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.