funding fun

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

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

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.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”