Greater Capital Region school superintendents outline legislative priorities

School superintendents from across seven counties in the Greater Capital Region have come together to outline the changes needed at the state level to spur a period of progress and achievement for New York’s students and schools.

The priorities are detailed in a legislative position paper, “New York’s Schools need a foundation for success,” that is being released by the joint Superintendents’ Legislative Committee for Capital Region and Quester III BOCES. The two BOCES serve 47 districts across Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties.

“Schools are focused on preparing students for a rapidly changing world, and superintendents are prepared to lead the way,” said Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., who co-chairs the Capital Region BOCES Legislative Committee. “We need a strong state partner that provides stability, proper resources and the flexibility to implement improvements and meet student needs.”

The four areas addressed in the paper are:

  • Adequate funding: Provide adequate funding for schools, through the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) and a significant increase in Foundation Aid;
  • Sensible tax cap modifications: In a year when many schools may face a tax cap near zero percent due to the complexities of the law, adjust the formula to allow for a stable 2 percent;
  • Teacher evaluations: Rebuild a teacher evaluation system that is fair, credible and reliable – and keeps the focus on improving classroom instruction; and
  • State Education Department Capacity: Invest in the capacity of the State Education Department to guide school improvement efforts and fulfill basic functions, including the timely review of capital projects.

The superintendents cite the Educational Conference Board’s recent recommendation for a $2.2 billion increase in school funding in 2016-17 to continue current school services and provide targeted funding for a series of needs and initiatives, including supporting struggling schools and expanding graduation pathways. The paper provides financial data for each district in the region, including the amount of the GEA state aid cut and Foundation Aid they are still owed.

Superintendents are particularly concerned about the implications of the tax cap in the year ahead. Based on current projections for the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the allowable growth factor in the tax cap formula will be two-hundredths of one percent. This leaves many districts bracing for the damage a cap close to zero percent would do to student programs.

The position paper calls for lawmakers to do away with the volatility of CPI in the tax cap formula and replace it with a consistent 2 percent, the figure widely associated with the law. Absent a change in the cap or sufficient school aid, student programs will be in jeopardy as school leaders plan budgets for next year.

The report notes that changes are in progress to diminish the role of state assessments in teacher evaluations, at least for a transition period. The superintendents say this is a positive first step, but they encourage the state to start working with educators now to ensure they have the time needed to properly rebuild an evaluation system that is fair, credible and keeps the focus on improving classroom instruction.

The superintendents also detail how a lack of capacity at the State Education Department (SED) has impacted its ability to support schools. In particular, understaffing in the Facilities Planning Unit has led to a serious backlog of district capital projects awaiting approval – 950 projects are currently in the pipeline and there is an average review time longer than 40 weeks. This delay impacts students and taxpayers and slows down the local economy.

According to the paper, the budget cuts of recent years, the prospect of a new chapter in education reform, and the intense demands of the global economy demonstrate that the partnership between the state and schools is more important than ever.

“In the long run, New York cannot prosper without strong public schools,” said Schodack Superintendent Robert Horan, who chairs the Questar III BOCES Legislative Committee. “The stability of our finances and our programs is vital to communities, families, taxpayers and students. Positive state action is the key to building more momentum in the effort to give all students a chance to succeed and to ultimately contribute to our economy and society.”

Hudson Valley schools to find out “Who’s Driving the Bus” on Jan. 5

On January 5, school leaders, boards of education and community advocacy groups from districts in Orange, Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess counties are invited to attend “Who’s Driving the Bus?” an important, free advocacy event that will be held at Monroe-Woodbury High School.

Hosted by Fair Funding for Our Schools, this event will feature an eye-opening presentation on the influence of private money on New York’s public education system today, and what you can do about it.

Who’s really behind such movements as APPR, Common Core, standardized testing, charter schools, voucher programs and more? Who’s calling the shots in our classrooms? Who’s Driving the Bus? Is it time to take back the keys?

Event Details

WHAT: On Jan. 5, 2016, noted author of “Polishing the Apple: Examining Political Spending in New York to Influence Education Policy” and founding member of Common Cause, Susan Lerner, will present some startling facts about political spending in relation to education policy in New York State.

WHO: Susan Lerner, author and founding member of Common Cause, followed by a roundtable discussion with Tim Kremer, Executive Director, NYSSBA (New York State School Boards Association); Robert Lowry, Deputy Director for Advocacy, Research & Communications, NYSCOSS (New York State Council of School Superintendents); a representative from NYSUT (New York State United Teachers); and roundtable moderator Barry Lewis, Executive Editor, Times-Herald Record

WHEN: Tues., Jan. 5, 7:00 p.m. (Snow date: Thurs., Jan. 7)

WHERE: Monroe-Woodbury High School, 155 Dunderburg Road, Central Valley, NY

WHY: The recent wave of market-based educational interests has been financed by powerful national foundations and wealthy private investors who are major political contributors in New York. These “venture philanthropists” have been positioning themselves on several fronts: funding research institutions, reframing the national debate in the media, positioning sympathetic leaders into educational regulatory bodies, and lobbying policymakers to enact their desired educational policies.

To register, go to:

State education leaders release school finance recommendations

The Educational Conference Board held a press conference this morning to release thier latest report encompassing a full slate of recommendations in the arena of school finance.

The New York State Educational Conference Board brings together NY’s heavy-hitters in educational policy. It’s comprised of the seven leading educational organizations representing parents, classroom teachers, school-related professionals, school business officials, building administrators, superintendents and school boards.

From the press release:

New York’s major statewide education organizations today pressed for a $2.2 billion state aid increase for 2016-17, along with broader action help to schools prepare the next generation of students for success.

In a school finance report released today, the Educational Conference Board (ECB) also called on the state to address the strong possibility that schools could face a punishing zero percent limit on local tax increases next year due to the way the state tax cap is constructed.

The recommended $2.2 billion state aid increase includes $1.7 billion to continue current school services plus $500 million in targeted funding to fund critical school improvement initiatives such as expanding pre-kindergarten access, providing sufficient support for struggling schools and English language learners, training teachers, and opening new pathways to graduation.

Read the full report.

Cuomo announces members of Common Core Task Force

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the 15 members of the new Common Core Task Force who are being charged with reviewing and making recommendations to overhaul the current Common Core system and the way students are tested.

The Task Force is made up of a mix of state representatives, regional education leaders, teachers and parents.

“I have spoken to parents, teachers, superintendents, and school boards, all across the state and I know that the situation is critical – I have heard the message clearly: we must take action and we must take action now to fix our schools. And we will,” Cuomo said in a press release.

The group is expected to deliver its final recommendations by the end of this year.

Representatives on the Task Force include:

  • Richard Parsons, Senior Advisor, Providence Equity Partners Inc. and Chairman of the Board, Citigroup Inc. (Chair of the Task Force)
  • Heather Buskirk , Mohawk Valley Master Teacher and Science Teacher at Johnstown High School
  • Geoffrey Canada, President, Harlem Children’s Zone
  • Carol Conklin-Spillane, Principal of Sleepy Hollow High School
  • MaryEllen Elia, Commissioner of the New York State Education Department
  • Constance Evelyn, Superintendent of the Valley Stream School District
  • Catalina Fortino, Vice President of the New York State United Teachers
  • Kishayna Hazlewood, 3rd Grade Teacher at P.S. 156 in Brooklyn
  • Tim Kremer, Executive Director of the New York State School Boards Association
  • Carl Marcellino, Senator and Chair of the Senate Education Committee
  • Cathy Nolan, Assembly Member and Chair of the Assembly Education Committee
  • Sam Radford III, President of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo
  • Carrie Remis, Rochester Area Parent
  • Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers
  • Nancy L. Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York

NYSASBO: Local share of school spending up, state share down

According to a New York State Association of School Business Officials (NYSASBO) report, the local share of school funding — mostly in the form of property taxes — is up four percent over the last decade.

Conversely, the state and federal share has declined by two percent each over that same time span.

The study identified that school spending moderated considerably since 2009, the onset of the recession, and continued under the tax levy cap.

Despite the recent $1.3 billion increase in school aid funding, the study also shows that aid levels remain below pre-recession levels.

The funding disparity between high need and low need districts has remained virtually unchanged over the last five years. In 2007-08, there was a $5,541 gap between what low need districts and high need districts spent per pupil. In 2012-13, that gap dipped slightly to $5,358 per pupil.

“The state share of education funding is still below pre-recession levels despite recent increases in school aid demonstrating a need for further state investment,” said Michael J. Borges, NYSASBO’s Executive Director. “The disparity between high and low need districts remains troubling to efforts to improve student achievement for all students. The state needs to not only end the GEA, but make a serious down payment on funding the Foundation Aid formula developed in 2007 that was meant to address the inequity between high and low need districts.”

NY’s 3-8 state test results have arrived

The New York State Education department has released the results of the 2015 ELA and math tests for grades three through eight. From the release:

“The State Education Department today released the results of the 2015 Grades 3-8 English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Tests. Overall, students statewide have made incremental progress in ELA and math since 2013, the first year assessments aligned to the more rigorous learning standards were administered in grades 3-8. In ELA, the percentage of all test takers in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level (Levels 3 and 4) remained consistent in 2015 at 31.3 compared to 30.6 in 2014 and 31.1 in 2013. In math, the percentage of all test takers in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level (Levels 3 and 4) increased by seven points in two years to 38.1 in 2015 from 36.2 in 2014 and 31.1 in 2013.”

Prepare for an onslaught of news coverage and punditry, which we’ll be sure to share both here and on our Twitter feed. While you wait here’s three quick angles on this story that we think are particularly interesting:

The impact of test refusal

According to state education officials, twenty percent of New York State’s third through eighth graders refused at least one of New York’s standardized tests this year. How will this impact results and how will NYSED address it?

Critiquing the difficulty of the tests

As the state releases more of the actual test content, news outlets and blogs are sharing the questions with the public allowing them to discover if they are “smarter than a 3rd grader.” Are the tests too difficult?

The impact of test results on teacher evaluations

An interesting topic sure to get more play in the coming coverage of the score release is this case of a master teacher suing New York state over an ‘ineffective’ rating on her annual professional performance review. From the Washington Post article:

“Sheri G. Lederman, a fourth-grade teacher in New York’s Great Neck public school district, is “highly regarded as an educator,” according to her district superintendent, Thomas Dolan, and has a “flawless record”. The standardized math and English Language Arts test scores of her students are consistently higher than the state average.

Yet her 2013-2014 evaluation, based in part on student standardized test scores, rated her as ‘ineffective.'”

How can a teacher known for excellence be rated “ineffective?” And is it fair to use student test scores to measure a teacher’s success?


Christina Speaks: 5 things all students should know about college search process

IMG_1913Christina Summers is an intern for the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service. She is going into her junior year at Marist College where she is majoring in communications with a duel concentration in journalism and public relations, and a minor in fashion merchandising. She will be contributing content to Education Speaks throughout the summer from the unique perspective of a college junior.

As a proud ambassador for my school, Marist College, I get the opportunity to interact with prospective students who are in the midst of their college search process. I was one of the few lucky ones who knew where I wanted to go to college at the tender age of 10 years old, and now I’m attending my dream school. However that is a rare case, and through my experience as an ambassador I’ve learned a few tips on what to look out for when applying to schools. The college search process can be intimidating. First off, it means that you’re becoming old enough to even go to college. To think that in a few short years you’ll be packing up your room, leaving your mom’s home cooking and transitioning into one of the first stages of adulthood, it would cause anyone to panic a little. But is can also generate a lot of excitement for what’s to come. But before you start picking out your mini fridge and single XL bedding, you have to figure out where you’re headed. Here are a few key elements to keep in mind to help make your college search process a little bit easier.

1. Major/Minor
I hate to say this but your mother was right—the most important thing to consider when you first start looking for the right college or university is if they offer your potential major/minor. Even if you are going in undecided, take a look at what resources the college offers for undecided students and the timeframe you have to decide on a major. It is a nightmare to fall in love with a school to soon realize that they don’t offer what you’re looking to study. So save yourself some heartache and start making a list of schools that offer your intended major. Another aspect to look into is if the college offers any study abroad options. You don’t need to decide now if you want to spend a semester in another country, but it’s a bonus to have the option available to you.

2. Your Potential College Town
One aspect that I completely overlooked when applying to schools was the town that the prospective school is located in. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the campus and everything the school has to offer, but what’s outside your campus walls? When you go away to school, you’re not just moving into a dorm, you’re moving to the surrounding town as well. Is there a bank or ATM nearby? Do you want to be near a big city? Where is the closet Chipotle? (At Marist it’s 45 minutes away. Just devastating.) After you visit the college campus, explore the town that it’s in. Ask where the best restaurants and shopping centers are. Find out if there are any locations for more student-centric activities. It’s important to factor this into your search process because this will be your home for the next four years.

3. Internships
The main objective in attending college is landing a job once you graduate to help pay off all those student loans. The most promising way to build up your resume and to get ahead in the job market is by taking an internship. Internships are either paid or for-credit job positions that place students in the real world in their particular field of study. Some schools require that you do one or multiple internships during your four years. According to Marist College communications coordinator Gerry McNulty, the current average college undergraduate completes two to three internships during their four years. The more internship opportunities your college offers the more likely it is for you to land that first job after college (and sometimes, even when you’re still in college!)

4. Campus Activities
Extracurricular activities in college are a lot different then they were in high school. The majority of students on campus are involved in some type of organization outside of regular classes. Take advantage of the organizations and clubs that your college may offer because these too can be used as resume builders and potential leadership positions. Many campuses have professional organizations such as Teachers of Tomorrow, Society of Professional Journalist, Public Relations Student Society of America, just to name a few. These professional organizations can connect you with alumni members in your field, which can help lead you to future job opportunities. Colleges also offer a variety of other extracurricular opportunities such as Greek life, intermural sports, band/choir and academic societies. These are great outlets to meet people that may end up becoming lifelong friends.

5. Trust your gut
When looking at colleges, the best way to get an accurate feel for student life is to visit the campus. I already knew I loved Marist, but the moment I stepped foot on the campus, it immediately validated my thoughts on the school. If you can, try to stay on the campus after you take a tour. Wander around, talk to current students and investigate your potential new home. If it feels right to you, it most likely is.

The number one tip to take away from this piece is to keep an open mind. You’d be surprised by what opportunities you’ll take advantage of when you’re in college that you never even imagined doing. College is all about new experiences, testing your limits and discovering yourself. Picking the right place to do it at can be stressful, but more importantly, it’s just a part of the journey.

Ahhh, summer!

The Ed Speaks editorial board is so glad that summer is finally here. Even though we’re twelve month employees who work all summer long, we’re busy trying to squeeze as much sunshine out of the days as possible. This means the blog will be updated a little less regularly during July and August. We do plan on staying active on our social media accounts, so be sure to check us out there:

Enjoy the long days, stay cool and use plenty of sunscreen!

POV: A letter to Assembly Speaker Heastie on the Education Tax Credit

Points_viewToday’s Point of View comes from the New York State Association of Small City School Districts. It was
originally sent to Hon. Carl Heastie, Speaker of the NYS Assembly on June 12, 2015.

On behalf of the NYS Association of Small City School Districts and the nearly one quarter of a million students and 1.5 million residents of these districts, we strenuously oppose the Governor’s proposed Parental Choice in Education Act. This legislation would misdirect hundreds of millions of dollars in State revenues at a time when the State is failing to provide the funding needed for a meaningful high school education in many public schools as required by Article XI of the NYS constitution. This blatant disregard of constitutionally mandated priorities is appalling to those in the small city districts who struggle each year to compensate for woefully inadequate State funding.

The effect of the State’s failure to uphold its responsibilities under the Education Article
of the constitution is demonstrated in a report by Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University (School Funding Fairness in New York State: An Update for 2013-14, Prof. Bruce D. Baker, Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education), which finds that
New York State is 42nd in equity in education spending between poorer and more affluent
school districts. This inequity is the main cause of the failure to provide an adequate
education in poorer communities. The failure to give a significant portion of our youth
the opportunity to become career and college ready causes permanent damage to these
children and their families and makes no sense on a societal level, as it is detrimental to
the state’s long term economic future.

Public education is a precious right, the exercise of which should not depend on the zip
code of the child. The Parental Choice in Education Act would only exacerbate existing
inequities and inadequacies. The diversion of State revenues away from public schools as
provided under the Act is not only constitutionally wrong, it is simply bad public policy.

The value judgments and choices made now will have a deep and lasting effect on
the lives of millions of children in New York State whose success is essential to their
families, their communities and the future of our state.

We therefore ask you and your colleagues in the Assembly Chamber to oppose this

The real reason New York is Number 1 in school spending

Last week, we wrote about how, once again, New York’s public schools topped the list of per pupil spending according to a United States Census Bureau report.

Predictably, the public reaction was negative. And why wouldn’t it be? When a report just presents the figures and doesn’t dive into the reasons why New York is in such a unique financial position compared to the other 49 states, you get narrowed view of reality.

Fortunately, Bob Lowry, Deputy Director for Advocacy Research & Communications for the New York State Council of School Superintendents (quite the title, Bob) is paying attention.

In a recent post on his Council Blog, Lowry details that there’s more to New York’s spending than meets the eye, including such factors as how labor-intensive education is, the value New Yorkers place on public services, and the reality that if you want extraordinary opportunities for students, it’s going to cost money.

It’s a great read and we thank Bob for the opportunity to re-post it. Give his blog a read when you have a chance, too. It’s chock-full of good information.

From Bob Lowry, The Council Blog:

Today, the Empire Center for Public Policy reported on new Census Bureau data finding that, once again, New York leads the nation in per pupil spending on its public schools.

Seldom does anyone stop to ask why New York schools spend at the levels they do.

One reason is that New York is part of a high cost region. All but two of the top ten per pupil spending states are located in the northeastern quarter of the nation.

Related, New York is high cost in many things, not just education.

For example, New York has the third highest average weekly wages for all workers, trailing two other northeastern states (Connecticut and Massachusetts). Education is labor intensive; if labor costs are high in general, it should be no surprise that education spending would be high.

In contrast to other economic sectors, unionization is nearly universal in New York public schools. Unions exist to protect and improve employee compensation. A 2012 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked New York in the top tier of state on teacher union strength and first in teacher union resources and membership

A second reason for New York’s high education spending is that New Yorkers do value public services, not just public schools.

For example, New York has far more state park sites than any other state and is third in total state park acreage, behind Alaska and California – not including the Adirondack Park.

Despite a large private higher education sector, New York maintains two of the nation’s largest public university systems – the State and City Universities of New York.

New York ranks third in total state and local government spending per capita, behind two sparsely populated western states (Alaska and Wyoming).

Third, another way to answer the question, “why is New York’s education spending higher than other states?” is to look at the composition of spending.

In general, New York employs more staff and pays them better than other states – at least partly for reasons described below. But New York’s cost for employee benefits is especially high: per pupil spending on benefits for instructional employees is 169 percent above the national average. The two major benefit expenses are for pensions and health insurance. The number of employees and extent of benefits contribute to these costs.

But another factor in benefit costs is that New York makes a stronger effort than most states to assure appropriate funding of pension obligations. Pensions and Investments ranked New York’s Teachers Retirement System one of the nation’s top 10 pension funds, public or private. New York ranks among the top 10 states in funding ratios for its retirement systems.

In contrast, New Jersey has habitually underfunded its pension system, skipping payments altogether in at least four years since 2001. New Jersey has been charged with fraud by the Securities Exchange Commission for misleading bond investors about funding of its pension obligations. So has Illinois.

Fourth, citing a statewide average masks as much as it reveals. New York is home to public schools that provide truly extraordinary opportunities and those opportunities are expensive.

Niche, an education review website, recently reported on the nation’s best public school districts – eight of the top 10 are located in New York.

Year after year, New York public schools account for a quarter to a third of the national semi-finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition which honors high school students undertaking sophisticated research projects.

On the other hand, New York ranks poorly on some measures of equity in school finance. New York is one of 10 states receiving a grade of F from the Education Law Center for education funding relative to student poverty – the ratio of per pupil spending in high versus low poverty schools.

Fifth, it’s worth asking who decides how much should be spent on schools. It is not solely school board members, superintendents, and school business officials who decide, and there is no evidence in any event that those leaders are less competent or more covetous than counterparts in other states.

Outside the “big five” cities, school budgets are approved by voters. Since the advent of the statewide budget voting day in 1998, voters have approved an average 92 percent of school budgets on the first vote. Surveys routinely show New Yorkers opposing School Aid cuts and prioritizing support for schools.

Finally, state policy plays a role in determining how much schools cost to operate. New York has rules not found in other states and they drive costs.

No other state has a Wicks Law requiring multiple prime contractors on public construction projects or a “Scaffold Law” making employers essentially automatically liable when a construction worker is injured on the job, even in cases of personal negligence. New York also has more extensive special education mandates than most states.

No state we have found has a mandate exactly like New York’s Triborough Law which provides that all provisions of an expired collective bargaining agreement remain in place until a successor agreement is negotiated.

Other states assure benefits are continued if a collective bargaining agreement expires – a reasonable accommodation given prohibitions against strikes by public employee unions. But no other state we have found assures continuation of “step” increases – automatic increases in pay tied to years of service. The cost is more than just in pay increments. The assurance of automatic pay increases even under expired contracts undermines districts in attempting to negotiate cost saving changes to labor agreements.

Most mandates have some merit, but all have costs – in money, time or both. Assign someone a project, attach conditions to how they may perform the work, and those conditions will affect the outcome.

Keeping all current school mandates in place and complaining about school costs is like tying a person’s shoes together, then complaining he or she doesn’t run fast enough.

Ultimately the task for both school leaders and state officials is to produce the learning opportunities our students need with the resources our taxpayers can afford. That work requires honesty about the factors that influence the cost of providing those opportunities.