Future of Schools

New York state officials call for $2.1 billion bump in education funding

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
The New York Board of Regents meet at their December 2018 meeting.

State officials proposed on Monday a $2.1 billion funding boost for education across New York, largely focusing on increasing dollars to support high-needs school districts.  

The proposal — which still needs the Board of Regents’ final approval on Tuesday —  is about $500 million larger than the request last year, which was shrouded in concerns over a multi-billion-dollar state deficit, a threat of federal spending cuts, and a tax overhaul that could have hurt state revenue.

Monday’s proposal focuses on several of last year’s priorities: increased funding for foundation aid, the formula that sends extra dollars to high-needs districts; improving education for English language learners; and expanding pre-K programs throughout the state.

At the meeting, Regent Judith Johnson raised concerns over how many new initiatives or programs the state Department of Education could realistically shoulder without a promise for additional staffing.

The Educational Conference Board, a coalition of statewide organizations that includes the state teachers union, called for a slightly larger amount, $2.2 billion. Last year, the Regents’ request was $400 million short of what the ECB called for.

Each year, the Regents’ proposal for state aid highlights their priorities for lawmakers, who make the final decision on what will get funded and by how much. Last year, the Assembly approved a budget that increased education funding by $1 billion, still significantly short of what the Regents wanted.

One year later, the political climate in Albany is different. The state education department’s budget request comes right after an election that ushered in Democratic control of the state Senate and new progressive-minded lawmakers who have campaigned on increasing school funding.

State officials, however, dismissed the idea that the election influenced the size of their request.

When asked whether they think state lawmakers will be more receptive to their request this year, Regent and State Aid subcommittee co-chair Beverly L. Oudekirk said, “We can always hope.”

Chancellor Betty Rosa said budget discussions start over the summer and involve conversations with education officials and groups, such as advocates for English language learners, who want to see certain programs or initiatives funded. Many of the funding requests were priorities last year, too, officials said.

“And in reality I don’t think the chairs are thinking even in September, ‘What’s November going to look like?’” Rosa said.

Broken down, $1.66 billion of the state-aid request is for an increase of “foundation aid,” which accounts for a third of the state education funding for New York City. Reflecting a focus on students who are learning English as a new language, about $85 million of this amount would specifically go toward “accelerating” initiatives for English language learners. If the legislature grants any part of this request for students learning English as a new language, the state Department of Education would guide districts on how to use the money.

The foundation aid apportionment grew out of a 13-year lawsuit contending the state’s funding formula was unconstitutional and did not fairly provide for districts that needed the most support.

But even after the formula was established, the state department of education says there is still a funding gap of $4.1 billion. In Monday’s proposal, officials  proposed a three-year phase-in that would increase foundation aid by almost $5 billion dollars, accounting for inflation, by the 2021-2022 school year.

A total of $404 million was requested for reimbursement-based aid for districts, which funnels into support for buildings, transportation, special education, and the consolidation of federal pre-kindergarten programs.

Another $26 million would go toward more universal pre-K programs across the state, most of that to create 4,000 more seats for four-year-olds.

Career and technical education programs would receive a $25 million boost.

Regent Johnson was concerned that the ambitious request — which she applauded — would be too heavy of a lift without more staffing.

“This is not going to roll out the way it’s described,” Johnson said, calling the state education department “woefully understaffed.”

In its request, the state asks lawmakers to fund any new programming with dollars to support staffing for its implementation. But, as is the case for the entire budget request, it’s up to lawmakers to decide how big a staff is necessary.  

“We are one of the agencies that often — we don’t get the resources that are needed to do the best job we can,” Elia said to Johnson. “It is a taxing process. As we get these approvals, I’m telling you right now we are not going to have the staff to do them at the level you want.”

Regent Catherine Collins expressed anger over not seeing specific funding to address suspension rates, saying she was inspired by a Buffalo Daily News article about an Education Trust New York report that found black students in Buffalo are twice as likely as their white peers to be suspended.

In New York City, suspensions continue to stir discussions about school discipline reform. Mayor Bill de Blasio has implemented a set of reforms that have made it tougher to suspend students for certain issues. Under his administration, suspensions have fallen by about 32 percent over nearly five years.

Advocates are now pushing to reduce the maximum length of suspensions.

Elia said that it’s up to local decision makers — such as school boards and superintendents — to determine what portion of state funds, if any, to use to address issues like suspensions.

The New York State United Teachers applauded the proposal.

“We welcome the Regents’ strong, ongoing support for a significant new investment in public education — one that would enable our school districts from Long Island to Buffalo to better meet students’ growing needs,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a press release.

In a statement, the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy group, hopes the “new reality in the New York State legislature” will mean more funding for education and urged state lawmakers to heed funding calls from state education officials.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to present his entire budget proposal next month, while legislators will also consider a spending plan during their next session, which starts in January. The deadline to pass a budget is April 1.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.