Budget Guide

What will Gov. Murphy’s budget mean for Newark schools? Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Phil Murphy for Governor
Gov. Phil Murphy, shown here in a photo from 2014, will release his first-ever budget plan on Tuesday.

Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on a pledge to ramp up education spending, and Newark school leaders are watching closely to see if he’ll keep that promise – or if they might have to slash their budgets.

Murphy is set to unveil his first-ever budget plan Tuesday. While districts will not get detailed aid figures for a few more days, Murphy’s budget proposal should give them a sense of how much of a boost — if any — to expect.

Expectations are high in Newark, where flat state funding and rapid charter school growth has left district officials scrambling to plug gaping budget holes. They’re hoping Murphy will give them some portion of the $140 million in additional aid that the city is owed under state law.

“This budget season is very, very important for us,” Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

To help you understand what’s at stake for the city’s schools, Chalkbeat Newark created a state budget guide. It explains how school funding is set and what that means for Newark’s district and charter schools, whose financial fate is controlled by politicians in Trenton.

How are New Jersey schools funded?

New Jersey schools are funded according to a formula that was adopted in 2008 and has been touted as a national model for distributing school aid according to need.

The formula calculates two things: How much money each district needs to adequately educate its students (its “adequacy budget”), and what portion of the budget should be paid by the district (its “fair share”). The budget amount is determined by how many students a district enrolls, with extra money allocated for each student who is poor, still learning English, or has a disability. The share each district must chip in is based on its wealth and taxing capacity.

That’s how things are supposed to work, anyway.

Due to budget cuts that followed the Great Recession, the formula has not been properly enacted since 2009. Today, about 31 percent of the state’s nearly 600 school districts receive less school aid than the formula says they’re owed, according to the Education Law Center. To fully fund the formula, the state would need to boost its school spending by nearly $1 billion.

What might change this year?

If the governor keeps his promise, schools will get a lot more money.

On the campaign trail, Murphy, a Democrat, vowed to fully fund the school-aid formula “immediately.” However, he recently appeared to waver on that timeline — and few observers consider it realistic.

Still, any serious funding boost will be costly. To raise the additional revenue, Murphy has proposed hiking income taxes on households making more than $1 million, among other measures.

But Murphy’s “millionaire’s tax” has become a harder sell following the Republican federal tax overhaul, which capped the amount people can deduct on their taxes. Last week, the state’s top Democratic lawmaker, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, unveiled an alternative proposal: a tax on corporations earning more than $1 million in net annual income. Either plan would generate more than $600 million in new revenue for the state — though it remains to be seen how much of that would go toward education.

While Murphy and lawmakers have until June 30 to hash out the state budget, districts are on the hook to set their own preliminary budgets by the end of March. That means they must rely on Murphy’s spending plan for now, then make adjustments once a final compromise is reached.

“It’s totally crazy,” said Danielle Farrie, the Education Law Center’s research director.

What will the budget mean for Newark Public Schools?

Newark’s limited tax base leaves it at the mercy of the state, which provides about 80 percent of its school funding.

This school year, the state sent Newark about $750 million — about $140 million less than what it’s entitled to under the school-funding formula. Gregory told Chalkbeat in January that if the district gets even a fraction of what it’s owed, “we’ll be in a better place.”

The Newark school system has faced whopping budget gaps in recent years. Two factors have driven the deficits: the rapid growth of charter schools and flat state funding.

Because charter school funding comes out of district budgets, Newark spending on charters has soared as those schools enroll ever more students. This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, state aid to Newark has not kept up with its rising expenses. The result is that the district’s per-pupil spending shrank by nearly $2,000 from 2008-09 to 2016-17, according to an Education Law Center analysis that adjusted for inflation. (The state boosted Newark’s budget each of the past two years.)

To balance the budget, Newark officials have had to sell off school buildings, switch employee insurance providers, and raise local taxes, among other measures. The district has mostly avoided cutting school budgets — though it did recently shift some funds from high schools to elementary schools. But if state funding is flat this year, officials worry they will be left with few other options.

“The last place to go is in school buildings,” Gregory said. However, “if we face flat funding again, that could lead to an immediate impact on students.”

What about Newark’s charter schools?

Today, about one third of Newark’s public-school students — or roughly 16,000 children — attend charter schools.

About 90 percent of the district’s local and state funding for each of those students follows them to their charter schools — though charters are excluded from certain funding streams. Murphy has been more skeptical of charters than his predecessor. But advocates hope that his budget will, at the very least, not leave them with less money.

“We’re just generally looking for charters to be unharmed — for us not to go backwards,” said Nicole Cole, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “The families that we serve can’t afford for us to take a step backwards.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”