coming attractions

Four education storylines to watch as New York kicks off its 2017 legislative session

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

Governor Andrew Cuomo just finished his whirlwind six-stop State of the State tour, but the legislative action in Albany is just heating up.

Education — or at least higher education — is likely to a huge topic of discussion this legislative session, if last week is any indication. Standing next to former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, Cuomo made a striking proposal to provide free tuition at state colleges for families making $125,000 or less.

“This society should say, ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful,’” Cuomo said.

The announcement was a showstopper for many in the education world, despite concerns that it doesn’t target some of the state’s neediest students. But there are other stories to watch, including a push to increase the state’s funding for schools, which totaled roughly $24.8 billion last year.

“State aid, state aid, state aid,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, when asked about his group’s top three priorities for this session. “Obviously that is the most crucial proposal that the governor typically makes for schools.”

State aid is front and center, in part, because most other hot-button education issues — like revamping the Common Core learning standards and deciding how to evaluate schools — are being overseen by the State Education Department.

In 2015, the governor proposed several major school reforms, including a contentious teacher evaluation system that stressed the use of standardized tests. After significant blowback, he has, in recent years, left more policymaking to the education department and its governing body, the Board of Regents.

Still, plenty of issues remain on the table for the legislature. Here are a few:

This could (finally) be the year schools get a long-awaited boost in “foundation aid.”

They say this is their year, but they are no strangers to disappointment.

Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are pushing, once again, for the state to provide $4.3 billion in funding they say schools are owed under the terms of a 2006 settlement which led to the creation of what’s known as the “foundation aid formula,” designed to distribute aid more fairly among schools. Advocates want the schools to receive that additional funding over the next two years, according to the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that has pushed for the funds.

The funding bump was largely derailed by the recession, which also caused a set of education cuts — called the Gap Elimination Adjustment — that were ultimately restored last year. Now, advocates argue, the time has come to fulfill the lawsuit’s full promise.

Activists have already walked 150 miles from New York City to Albany and staged a massive rally this year to draw attention to their cause. And some in Albany are listening. In his opening speech, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie urged his colleagues to create a timeline to provide the increase in foundation aid, and the Board of Regents suggested phasing in the $4.3 billion sum over three years.

Even the governor, who has not yet released his specific school aid proposal, signaled support for a spending increase in his State of the State address held in New York City.

“I am proud to announce that this year we will increase funding for education to a new record-level all-time high all across the state and that New York City will receive more aid for education than it has ever received by the state of New York ever before in history,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s free college proposal could steal the spotlight from K-12.

Cuomo’s landmark college tuition announcement will consume hours of debate. Does that mean Albany will forget about kindergarten through high school?

“It’s definitely possible that the governor will try, in that way, to pit K-12 against higher ed,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

But Regent James Tallon, who chairs the Regents state aid subcommittee and helped draft what he deemed an “aggressive” school funding proposal, said he is more optimistic.

“I don’t want to fall into the trap of just setting up a zero sum game between [budget] deficits, higher education, and P-12,” Tallon said.

Meanwhile, as the legislative session continues, lawmakers will have to decide if Cuomo’s college tuition plan goes far enough to help the state’s neediest kids. The lawmakers could propose additional funding for low-income students to defray non-tuition college costs, extend the program to part-time students, or work toward including undocumented students — a subject already proving divisive.

The governor is poised to continue a softer approach to education policy.

Two years ago, Cuomo proposed a set of education policies focused on test-based teacher evaluations and outside takeover of struggling schools. After a public outcry, he reversed course. His main agenda item in 2016 was support for “community schools,” giving underperforming schools extra resources to provide things like health services and tutoring.

So far this year, he seems to be sticking with that new approach. Cuomo’s K-12 agenda items include $35 million in grants to support after-school programs in high-need areas, funding for students to take Advanced Placement exams, and support for computer science teachers. Many of the programs echo initiatives that Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed in New York City.

Education advocates, including union officials, are generally pleased with the new policy direction.

“We’ve gotten away from some of the more punitive measures,” said Albert from the School Boards Association. “I think we’re getting toward much more positive, constructive policies.”

The State Education Department could get a boost.

In addition to funding schools directly, the state will also decide whether or not to fund specific policy proposals from the State Education Department.

Funding for the department isn’t headline-grabbing, but without it, the department would struggle to implement its goals.

Case in point: The department has asked for millions of dollars to revamp state tests by creating native language assessments for English language learners, bringing back foreign language Regents exams and piloting project-based assessments, which ask students to complete a series of tasks.

The Regents have floated the idea of substituting a foreign language exam or a project-based test for students struggling with the state’s current graduation exams.

Officials also asked for more funding to help prospective teachers pay for costly certification exams. That could ease the burden on prospective teachers and fulfill another policy goal: encouraging more low-income teachers and teachers of color to join the profession.

2018

Salazar won’t run in governor’s race featuring strong education storylines

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Ken Salazar’s decision not to run for Colorado governor takes one prominent Democrat out of a still-developing campaign that promises to prominently feature public education as an issue.

The former U.S. senator and interior secretary cited family reasons for his decision to sit out the 2018 Democratic primary. Salazar, who is closely involved in raising a granddaughter who has autism, could have been a voice on public education for children with disabilities.

In a Denver Post commentary explaining why isn’t running, Salazar took a broad view of the challenges in education.

“Colorado’s education crisis needs to be solved from pre-kindergarten to college,” Salazar wrote. “It is sad that Colorado has defunded higher education and abandoned the great tradition of leading the nation with our great colleges and universities.”

Salazar’s announcement could set other plans in motion quickly in the Democratic field.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a prominent education reformer, and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, have already announced they are running.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada told the Denver Post on Thursday the “chances are very good” he will run, and could declare his candidacy soon.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy said she is seriously considering running, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder said he has not ruled it out, according to the Post.

Among the Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

how's it going?

She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”