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.

Head of the Class: Angelo Santabarbara

We’re very excited to announce the launch of our new web series entitled “Head of the Class.”

Through “Head of the Class,” we will bring you one-on-one with educational leaders and elected officials throughout New York discussing some of the most pressing issues facing education today.

Our first guest is Assemblymember Angelo Santabara, District 111. We sat down with him to discuss a variety of topics, including the tying of state aid to teacher evaluations, standardized tests and how they relate to teacher evaluation, and the controversial Parental Choice in Education Act.

What does advocacy for schools look like?

Loyal readers of Ed Speaks will know that one of the topics we cover closely is advocacy. Becoming an advocate for education is not as hard as you might think. The only prerequisite is a strong desire to stand up for our students and our schools. This morning, we introduce you to Brady Regan, a specialist at State Aid Planning and a member of the New York State Association for School Business Officials‘ (NYASBO) Government Relations Committee. The committee is responsible for developing a legislative agenda that includes proposed changes to laws and regulations that support the school business office as well as adequate funding for public education. On May 27, the committee met with members of the Comptroller’s Office and both the Senate and Assembly. Brady takes us inside those meetings to give us a first-hand look at advocacy in the works.

The New York State Association for School Business Officials’ (NYSASBO) Government Relations Committee meets annually with state legislators and other state decision makers to discuss legislative initiatives impacting school districts. On May 27, we met with individuals from the Comptroller’s Office and both the Senate and Assembly. Our list of topics for discussion included proposed legislation that would create a statewide trust for Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) expenses of school districts, local government efficiency plans, modifications to the property tax cap, regulations on student enrollment and our opposition to a bill that would reduce retainage for school capital projects; complex topics for anyone to be a true expert in.

Being new to the advocacy committee this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the advocacy process. I’ve always wondered what goes on in these serious meetings behind closed doors, at security-protected buildings with schedules full of back-to-back appointments. I have to admit I was a little intimidated. Would I say the wrong thing? Would I let the committee down? Not only did I feel slightly nervous, but I was also curious to discover the knowledge the policy-makers had regarding the topics we would present. After all, these individuals are incredibly busy; concerned with a number of different policy issues that are not solely education related. At the same time, education is a high priority for them and the decisions that they make will have significant impacts on schools.

Given the perception by many that our legislators are disconnected from the issues that matter most such as education, I was pleased to see they were much aware of and informed on a number of the priorities we discussed. For instance, when proposing changes to the property tax cap calculation, each individual was well educated on the various components mentioned as well as the impact that the changes would have on the calculation. They were also able to discuss in great detail why a proposal would or wouldn’t gain any traction in the legislative process. Their concerns for how these legislative changes would impact schools were evident based on the amount of input they offered to the conversation.

There were times, however, when the individuals were not fully aware of certain details on a particular topic, so an advocacy committee member would step in and further explain the concept. The committee consists of business officials, NYSASBO’s director and me and we are all well-educated on the presented material. I was very impressed with the shared knowledge of the committee. I found it very effective to have members share real-life examples from their school districts to help enhance our case.

It’s also important to note that we are not always requesting additional funding for education. There is a common belief that educational advocates simply go to legislators to ask for money. This is absolutely untrue and it doesn’t help that the media adds to this misconception. This meeting (along with many other meetings) was to propose changes to current and future legislation that would help school districts be better managed. Our advocacy committee continually seeks ways to assist schools besides simply asking for additional funding, whether it is mandate relief or simple changes to current requirements.

The exchanges between our advocacy committee and the state legislators are vital to ensure our leaders make good decisions when it comes to education. I’m so honored to be a part of a group of such highly educated individuals who volunteer their time to advocate for our schools and to help legislators fully understand the impact that legislation has on schools.

New York still spends most per pupil in nation

Public Education Finances: Amount Each State Spent per Pupil in 2013

New York’s public schools topped the list of per pupil spending in the 2012-13 fiscal year according to a United States Census Bureau report.

New York schools spent an average of $19,818, up 1.3 percent from the previous year, and nearly 85 percent above the national average of $10,700.

According to the Empire Center for State Policy, school spending in New York is driven primarily by instructional salaries and benefits — which, at $13,756 per pupil, were 112 percent above the national average of $6,480, according to the census data. Additionally, New York’s public elementary and secondary schools, totaling 2.6 million students (excluding charter schools), spent a total of $59.4 billion — exceeded only by California, which spent $66.4 billion on 6.2 million students.

New York is one of the states receiving the lowest percentage of its revenue from the federal government at 5.6 percent, ranking it fourth-lowest behind New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. States receiving the highest percentage of revenue from the federal government were Mississippi (16 percent) and Louisiana (15.2 percent).

Top 5 in Per Pupil Spending

  • New York ($19,818)
  • Alaska ($18,175)
  • The District of Columbia ($17,953)
  • New Jersey ($17,572)
  • Connecticut ($16,631)

Bottom 5 in Per Pupil Spending

  • Utah ($6,555)
  • Idaho ($6,791)
  • Arizona ($7,208)
  • Oklahoma ($7,672)
  • Mississippi ($8,130)

Read and React: Parental Choice in Education Act

If you’ve been watching education news this past week, aside from the buzz about the new Education Commissioner, there has been lots of debate over the Parental Choice in Education Act (formerly known as the Education Investment Tax Credit) recently introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Supporters claim the Parental Choice in Education Act will support and protect alternative school options for parents and students across New York state, by giving help to parents who want to send their kids to a better school but can’t afford it. Others argue that the tax credit is a facade, and siphons public monies to private institutions by allowing qualified families to gain tuition aid from the government in the form of tax refunds. A mail campaign from both sides has added to the increasingly heated debate.

The bill is strongly opposed by the state’s many educational associations:

Here’s a rundown of news coverage of the issue from around the state

POV: An open letter to the NYS Legislature on the Parental Choice in Education Act

Today’s Point of ViPoints_viewew comes from the Capital Region BOCES Superintendents’ Legislative Committee.

We are calling on all NYS legislators to reject the Parental Choice in Education Act (formerly known as the Education Investment Tax Credit) recently introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Despite what its name implies, if this measure is approved, parents and an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers will have no choice but to watch as hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding is diverted to supply tax breaks in support of religious and private schools.

Passage of this measure would have vast, destructive implications for public education and policy making in general. In short, this proposal:

Fails to serve the common good. Public schools in New York State serve nearly 90 percent of students with a constitutional mandate to provide a sound, basic education to every student. This measure would abandon the shared purpose in favor of individual interests.

Pits public v. private in a battle for limited resources. The legislation would allow up to $150 million in tax credits to be paid by New York State in the first year, and between $225 million and $300 million in subsequent years in support of private schools, setting up an annual tug-of-war for limited state resources. These are funds that could instead be used to support public education, public health or a myriad of other existing state programs. It would also pit neighbor against neighbor by rewarding some individual choices, and not others.

Ignores the fiscal realities of public schools. This measure is not only ill conceived, it is ill timed. New York state continues to withhold a significant amount of funding through the Gap Elimination Adjustment alone. Foundation aid continues to lag well behind the level ordered by the state’s highest court, with schools still being owed more than $5 billion.

Sets a dangerous precedent. The proposed measure also sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a small number of individuals and businesses to decide how their tax dollars will be spent. In part, it would reimburse donors up to 75 percent for gifts to religious and private schools. With individual donations allowed up to a maximum of $1 million, this would allow a person or business to redirect up to $750,000 of state revenue to support a private or religious school of his or her choice.

Promotes exclusion, rather than inclusion. New York’s children deserve the best education possible. Not just some children, but all children. Rather than being inclusive, the Parental Choice in Education Act, as proposed, is exclusive. Where public schools serve children regardless of their religion, race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background, private schools by and large use selective admissions.

It is for these reasons that we urge you to vote no to the Governor’s proposed education tax credits. Most importantly, at a time when our state’s public schools are still trying to regain solid footing after a protracted decline in state support, and with many districts still woefully underfunded, it would be a mistake to approve this unprecedented windfall for privileged and private interests.

Capital Region BOCES Superintendents’ Legislative Committee

Read & React: Elia named new commissioner

Photo courtesy: Tampa Bay Times

Photo courtesy: Tampa Bay Times

The Board of Regents voted on Tuesday to appoint MaryEllen Elia as the new commissioner of education of New York.

Elia’s appointment comes after a nearly five-month search by the Board of Regents to replace former Commissioner John King, who left the Department at the end of 2014 to take a job with the U.S. Department of Education.

Elia, a native New Yorker, most recently served as superintendent of schools in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, the eighth largest district in the country. She was named Florida superintendent of the year in December and was also a finalist for national superintendent of the year.

Her appointment is not without controversy though. In January, Elia was fired by the Hillsborough Board of Education, a decision that sparked criticism and debate across the country. According to State of Politics, Elia’s contract was terminated over concerns, in part, that schools were not doing enough to help special needs children.

Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch brushed off any concerns over Elia’s record.

“MaryEllen Elia has a remarkable record of working collaboratively with teachers, parents, and school leaders to get things done,” Tisch said. “During her time in Hillsborough, she led a successful introduction of the Common Core standards, increased graduation options for students who had fallen behind, and helped to develop one of the country’s most innovative teacher evaluation systems.”

“I began my career as a teacher and still consider myself a teacher at heart,” Elia said. “Good teachers are also good listeners.  My first item of business as Commissioner will be listening to parents, teachers, principals, school board members, and superintendents from across New York.  I believe whole-community involvement is essential to make our schools and school system even stronger.”

Elia will start her new position on July 6.

Read & React

SED poised to name new education commissioner

According to the Buffalo News, the State Education Department is poised to name a new education commissioner today.

MaryEllen Elia, 66, who started her education career in the Buffalo region, is expected to be the new commissioner, becoming the first female to hold this position.

The Board of Regents is holding an executive session this afternoon to finalize her hire and a press conference is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

Elia most recently served as superintendent of schools in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, the eighth largest district in the country. She was named Florida superintendent of the year in Decemeber and was a finalist for national superintendent of the year.

In January, Elia was fired in a 4-3 vote by the district’s board. From State of Politics:

“Elia stirred controversy as the Hillsborough County superintendent, where the school board voted in January voted to terminate her contract over concerns, in part, that schools were not doing enough to help special needs children.”

Elia attended Daeman College, earning her bachelor’s degree in history. She earned her master of education in social studies and a master of professional studies in K-12 reading from SUNY’s University at Buffalo.

As more information develops, we will bring it to you here.

99 percent of NY School budgets pass

Voters throughout the state of New York came out largely in support of their school district’s budget yesterday.

According to initial reports, 99 percent of school budgets were approved by voters, with only nine budgets from around the state getting voted down. That list includes:

  • Northeaster Clinton CSD*
  • Geneva CSD*
  • Chazy CRSD*
  • Herkimer CSD*
  • Patchogue Medford CSD*
  • Parishville-Hopkinton CSD*
  • Tioga CSD*
  • Walton CSD
  • Addison

(*District attempted to exceed tax levy cap which required 60 percent supermajority for approval.)

According to New York State School Boards Association, the average budget passage rate since 1969 is 85 percent. More recently, the average passage rate for the last five years is 96 percent. Since the introduction of the tax levy cap in 2012, the average passage rate for school district budgets is 97 percent.

“Parents and community members carefully reviewed school budgets and demonstrated the importance of local control by voting on their school budgets,” New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said. “In every region of the state, what we see today is a ringing endorsement of the work of teachers and school leaders in public schools on behalf of the state’s most important asset – its students.”

NY School Budget Vote Rundown