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.