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.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.