Show me the money

New York’s top policymakers outline a plan to help open up the black box of school funding

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

Schools across New York will have to start breaking down how much money they spend on students next year – a change required under federal law that advocates hope will create greater transparency.

State officials at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting stressed the importance of opening up the black box of school funding to ensure that money is going to the schools and students that need it most. But they also tried to address concerns that the change would become an administrative burden on schools.

“At this point in time, I can’t say people are jumping for joy over doing this,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “But I can say they understand why it’s being done.”

Currently, the state publicly reports how much money flows from the state to each district. After this changes goes into effect, districts will have to explain how they take that money and divide it among individual schools. The state is also hoping to put the information into an accessible package that will allow policymakers and community members to easily compare resources among schools.

“How do you have the same expectations if you’re spending this amount in one place and this amount in another place?” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa during Monday’s meeting.

School districts will begin tracking their budgets in the 2018-19 school year, but will not have to report that information publicly until December of 2019, state officials said Monday.

One wrinkle to the plan, though, is that reported funds will only include federal, state and local money. Several Regents raised concerns that the reporting requirements exclude non-governmental sources of funding, particularly in New York City where parent-teacher associations can raise extraordinary sums of additional money. Policymakers worry that without displaying this information, any tool the state provides will paint a misleading picture.

“There are many schools in New York City where the parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Regent Lester Young. “Poor people can’t raise that kind of money.”

The board provided an example of how the information could be displayed. (However, state officials cautioned this is only a sample and is certainly not a final recommendation.)

The sample included two bar graphs. The first shows per-pupil funding by school, starting with the highest funding level and dipping to the lowest. The second shows how much schools would gain or lose if the hypothetical district implemented a weighted funding formula.

Elia also made it clear that she does not want this to become a “compliance issue”  for districts, while acknowledging that some locales are concerned about tackling the additional task. She said that in order to smooth the transition, state officials have already met with stakeholders and that the state is convening a technical workgroup over the spring and summer to craft reporting guidelines.

It’s unclear exactly how much this will change reporting in New York City, which already includes per-student funding by school. State officials said they cannot say whether the city will have to change the way it reports information until they have a better sense of what will be required statewide.

However, state officials also said the city will have to fit into whatever statewide framework they devise, which could include a more accessible format that allows for easy comparisons between schools.

Another concern expressed by several policymakers is that while these changes will expose funding disparities, they will not force districts to make changes to funding distribution. Elia has come out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal that would allow state officials to review and reject certain school districts’ budgets with an eye towards equity. (At a conference of school board leaders in February, she said, “I am not interested in approving your budgets.”)

But without that kind of authority, Regents pointed out that any changes will have to come from local leaders who want to alter their funding structures.

“The role that we play will only be as good as the district’s willingness to receive and use it,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.