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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.