state of the state

Cuomo offers few new education plans for 2018, but says poor schools need more funding

PHOTO: Mike Groll- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his 2018 State of the State.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo scarcely mentioned education in a lengthy speech Wednesday laying out his policy agenda for the coming year — a marked contrast to previous years when his splashy or controversial education plans made headlines.

In his more than 90-minute State of the State address, Cuomo devoted just a few minutes to education, during which he mainly proposed expanding existing initiatives involving college scholarships, pre-kindergarten, and after-school programs. Unlike in the past when he promoted tougher teacher evaluations, the Democratic governor’s education latest agenda is generally in line with policies favored by progressive voters and teachers unions — factors that may help him as he runs for a third term as governor this fall and mulls a presidential run in 2020.

Two new education plans he’s pushing this year — increased access to school meals and protections for student-loan borrowers — had been previewed by his office ahead of the speech.

While he vowed to maintain a “historic investment” in the state’s schools, he also acknowledged that New York faces “a federal and economic challenge never experienced before” — including a projected $4.4 billion state budget deficit, a federal tax overhaul that targets high-tax states such as New York, and possible federal-funding cuts.

With an eye toward Washington, Cuomo promised to challenge the new tax law in court. And in his call for New York to continue to invest heavily in education — the state spends more per pupil than any other in the nation — he also suggested that poorer districts should get a larger share of that money, which advocates have long sought.

“We must address education funding inequities and dedicate more of our state’s school aid to poorer districts,” Cuomo said. “Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, nor does trickle-down education funding.”

Cuomo will follow up on his speech, which came with a 374-page policy book, with a spending plan that is due by Jan. 12. Then he must negotiate a final budget with state lawmakers, some of whom have already expressed concerns about raising taxes or increasing spending.

Spending restraint should be a top priority,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, in a statement Tuesday.

Here are the main education items in the governor’s proposal:

Fight student hunger: Cuomo put forward an anti-hunger plan to make sure students are well-fed and ready to learn.

The plan would ban “lunch shaming,” where some schools single out students who cannot pay for lunch, and would require schools where 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch to provide breakfast after the school day has begun. It also encourages the use of locally grown produce in school meals and would require all public colleges and universities to have food pantries or an arrangement with outside food banks.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to provide free lunch to all public school students regardless of family income. The city also offers free in-classroom breakfast for all elementary school students.

Help students pay for college: Cuomo announced several new protections for student-loan borrowers. The proposal would put new restrictions on student-loan providers, forbid the suspension of professional licenses for those who default on their loans, and provide students with more information about paying for school each year.

The proposal comes after Cuomo scored a key legislative victory last year with passage of the “Excelsior” scholarship, a plan to provide free tuition at in-state colleges for middle-income families. In the second year of the program, students from a wider range of families will be eligible for the scholarships, which Cuomo said will cost $118 million.

Train teachers in computer science: A new $6 million grant program would pay for teacher training in computer science and engineering. Mayor de Blasio’s plan for every New York City student to learn the basics of computer science will require about 5,000 trained teachers, city officials have estimated.

Expand existing initiatives: The bulk of Cuomo’s 16 education-specific plans are expansions of existings efforts. Many of them — including pre-K, after-school programs, and student mental-health services — overlap with initiatives already underway in New York City.

  • Pre-K: $15 million to grow the state’s prekindergarten offerings, which Cuomo launched in 2013 and has expanded each year. That is close to the $20 million that the state Board of Regents requested for preschool seats this year. Cuomo’s plan would add pre-K seats for both 4- and 3-year-olds — which could be good news for Mayor de Blasio, who is seeking state funding for his own “3-K” program.
  • After-school programs: $10 million to fund a second round of competitive grants to fund after-school programs in high-poverty areas, which included the Bronx last year. This round, a portion of the grants will be reserved for districts with high levels of student homeless or gang activity.
  • “Early college” high schools: $9 million to create 15 additional high schools where students can earn some college credit or associate’s degrees.
  • “Master teachers”: $1 million to give select teachers in high-poverty districts an annual stipend along with extra training, which Cuomo says will help draw effective teachers to high-needs schools.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.