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: http://www.fairedfundingny.org/

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.”

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.

Budget rundown: Reaction from around the state

New York has a budget for 2015-16.

Shortly after 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, Assembly members concluded their lengthy session, officially finalizing the roughly $150 billion spending plan. Here’s a brief overview of the components of the education bill.

  • State aid – The 2015-16 state budget includes a $1.3 billion year-to-year increase in aid to school districts statewide. Local aid increases are tied to new APPR teacher evaluation plans. A district must have a plan approved by November 15, 2015, in order to receive any increase in aid over 2014-15. The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) has been partially reduced in 2015-16 and is scheduled to end in 2016-17.
  • Teacher evaluations – The New York State Education Department will oversee the latest overhaul of the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) for teachers and principals. There will be two components to teacher evaluations: student performance on assessments and classroom observations. The value assigned to each component has not been determined. The budget also establishes strict new rules for educators who are rated “ineffective” in two or more consecutive years.
  • Teacher tenure – The probationary period for teachers and principals is increased from three years to four years. Teachers must have effectiveness ratings of either “Highly Effective” or “Effective” in three out of the four years to qualify for tenure. A teacher or principal who is rated “Ineffective” in year four cannot be granted tenure, but can have the probationary term extended by one year.
  • Underperforming schools – The budget sets a timeline for schools that are deemed “chronically underperforming” to improve or face consequences. Districts would be required to have improvement plans approved by the State Education Department and meet objectives contained within the plan. Schools would have one or two years to demonstrate improvement depending on how long it has been underperforming. Failure to show improvement could result in a school being put into receivership, giving control of the school to  a state-designated non-profit.

From Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

“Tonight, both houses of the Legislature have successfully passed the 2015-16 Budget spending plan to allow for the continued operation of government. This is a plan that keeps spending under two percent, reforms New York’s education bureaucracy, implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the Upstate economy in a generation.

This is a Budget that every New Yorker can be proud of, and I look forward to continuing to work to move New York forward this legislative session and beyond.”

Coverage from around the state

An outline of education reform proposals in budget (Capital New York)

Assembly affirms Cuomo-driven education budget, with ‘heavy hearts’ (Capital New York)

$142B New York state budget races clock (Capitol Confidential)

Party like it’s 2013! State aid increase to be linked to evaluations

School aid funding will be tied to teacher evaluations after all, reports Capital New York. According to the report, the $1.4B increase in aid agreed upon in the budget will be tied directly to state approval of locally negotiated teacher evaluation plans. Districts will have until mid-November to have their plans approved.

From Capital New York:

According to budget language that has not yet been finalized, the department would craft—subject to approval of the Board of Regents—regulations outlining a new evaluation system by June 30, deputy senior education commissioner Ken Wagner told Capital on Monday.

Some aspects of the rating system would be optional, so they would require negotiations between school districts, teachers and principals’ unions.

This model of withholding aid until an evaluation plan is approved was first introduced by Gov. Cuomo in 2013. Now, it seems districts will have to renegotiate their APPR plans.

“If we rewind back to the first year of implementation, districts had to put these plans in place under threat of losing a state aid increase,” New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert told Capital New York. “Why would we do the same thing again? Why not give districts the time they need so they can take the time to negotiate agreements that make sense?”

Details began to emerge last night on the new teacher evaluation system. The system will have two components: student test results and observation. From Jessica Bakeman:

There will be two required observations, from a teacher’s principal or administrator and an “independent” evaluator, who could be a principal, administrator or “highly effective” teacher from another school or district. As Cuomo originally proposed, a college professor or retired educator could also serve as the independent evaluator. A peer observation will be optional…Student growth on state-administered, Common Core-aligned English and math exams in third through eighth grades and Regents exams in high school will be required components for the evaluation system…Districts and local unions may choose to include an additional test, which would be designated by the State Education Department.

According to the most recent budget information, the State Education Department will be tasked with determining the percentage of evaluations tied to test scores.

“We’re giving SED the ability to do what the intent is for them to do,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Sunday night. “The state education department should be the chief arbiters of education policy in the state, and we’re allowing them to do what their mission is.”

The bills containing school aid and teacher evaluation have not been introduced or finalized as of Tuesday morning.

On Monday, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) president Karen Magee called for a mass opt out of state testing, citing that test-based evaluation is not a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.

“I’m a parent,” Magee said. “My child is in 11th grade at this point in time. Had he been a third to eighth grader, he would not be taking the test. The tests are not valid indicators. The American Statistical Association has said there is no direct link to tie these tests to student performance or teacher evaluation. Let’s look at tests that are diagnostic in nature, that actually inform practice in the classroom, that actually work to serve students who are directly sitting in front of the teacher for the year as opposed to what we have in place right now.”

The “opt-out” movement has increasingly gained traction. According to the NYSSBA, during the 2014 testing cycle, approximately 60,000 New York students opted out of the tests, compared with 10,000 a year earlier.

NYSUT officials released a fact sheet on opting out Monday morning, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise as they have stated in the past that they support a parent’s right to opt his/her child out of the state exams.

 

Budget deal reached, schools to see increase in aid

Update 11:04 a.m. According to Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi on Capital Press Room, 50% or $550M of the Gap Elimination Reduction will be restored.

Update 8:56 a.m. School aid runs should be released today, according to NYSUT. (H/T Susan Arbetter @sarbetter)

Update 8:45 a.m. Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on a framework for the state budget Sunday night that if approved, would see at least a $1.4B boost in aid to school districts and give the state education department control over teacher evaluation reform.

This increase in aid is higher than the $1.1B proposed by Cuomo in January. According to Capital New York, lawmakers said they were still working out exactly how school aid would be distributed. More details are expected to be released Monday.

The role of SED in relation to developing new teacher evaluations strays from what was reported late last week where lawmakers were reportedly discussing having the Board of Regents assume responsibility over evaluation reform.

From Capital New York on the role of SED handling evaluation reform:

A Cuomo administration source said the budget would specifically charge the education commissioner with the task, not the board. There is currently a vacancy in that role, since commissioner John King departed last year to take a job with the federal government…The department would have to flesh out the details of the new system by June. School districts would need to finalize any locally negotiated aspects of their ratings system and submit their plans for state approval by November.

“We’re giving SED the ability to do what the intent is for them to do,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told Capital New York. “The state education department should be the chief arbiters of education policy in the state, and we’re allowing them to do what their mission is.”

The budget will reportedly also include a program for state takeover of under-performing schools. From Capital New York:

Under the agreement, struggling schools will submit a plan to the state education department showing how they will improve, according to a Cuomo administration source.

Pending approval, the schools that have been yielding poor outcomes for 10 years or more will be allowed one year to show “demonstrable progress” before being subject to a state takeover. If there is no “demonstrable progress,” the school will go into receivership. Schools that have been struggling for at least three years will have two years to improve.

 

“After decades of leading the nation in education spending but lagging in results, New York will set an example for all other states with a complete overhaul of the entrenched education bureaucracy,” Cuomo said in a statement. “These reforms – accompanied by an unprecedented financial investment – will put students first by bringing accountability to the classroom, recruiting and rewarding our best teachers, further reducing over-testing, and finally confronting our chronically failing schools.”

There are conflicting reports over the status of teacher tenure. While Cuomo’s original proposal called for five consecutive “effective” ratings, Heastie said tenure will change from three years experience to four and evaluations will play a part in the tenure decision.

According to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which so many education advocates have fought to have removed, will be dramatically reduced.

More details on the budget are expected to be released Monday.

NYSUT to rally at the Capitol today

With the state budget deadline of April 1 looming, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) will be gathering at the Capitol on Thursday to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform proposals.

Since Cuomo released his budget proposal in late January calling for significant changes to the teacher evaluation process, NYSUT has been on the offensive, launching numerous ad and social media campaigns.

On Wednesday, NYSUT president Karen Magee said the union would support a stakeholders panel that would vet Cuomo’s proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system. The State Assembly majority conference is currently debating establishing such a panel.

From Capitol Confidential:

“We’d be in favor of a panel … of stakeholders,” Magee said, adding that the panel would have to have no power over aid or the authority to put any changes to the evaluation system into effect.

Cuomo’s proposed plan that would change the evaluation process for teachers so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. Teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective. A teacher who has two consecutive “ineffective” ratings would be removed from their teaching position.

NYSUT will also be protesting Cuomo’s withholding of state aid from schools until a budget deal is reached and high-stakes testing. Cuomo has tied $1.1 billion in education funding to the passage of his proposed reforms.

On Wednesday, Republican senators spoke out against Cuomo’s decision to withhold aid.

From the Buffalo News:

Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, influential chairman of the Senate Education Committee, dismissed talk Wednesday that a decision on school aid will be delayed until June.

“I don’t envision any circumstance where we’d leave here without a school aid run and school aid numbers,” he said.

The NYSUT rally will be held at 4 p.m., Thursday on the “Million Dollar Staircase.”