Welcome 2018

As Gov. Cuomo lays out his 2018 agenda, here’s what that could mean for New York’s schools

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address in 2017.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will lay out his 2018 policy agenda during his annual State of the State address Wednesday, which coincides with the start of this year’s legislative season.

Unlike in years past, education isn’t expected to top Cuomo’s legislative to-do list — especially amid the possibility of deep school-funding cuts.

Leading up to the speech in Albany, the governor has previewed 20 proposals — two of which focus on education. One involves a five-point plan to combat hunger in schools, while the other includes measures to help students who take out loans to pay for college.

Those proposals, however, are a far cry from his splashy plan last year to provide free in-state college tuition, or his efforts to more closely tie teacher evaluations to test scores, which sparked a heated policy battle during the 2015 legislative session.

His scaled-back education agenda this year comes as advocates and policymakers worry that politics in Washington and budget woes in Albany will leave less money for New York schools this year.

“There are no hot-button issues other than the funding of public education — which is the elephant in the room,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “You can’t do anything else without proper funding.”

Here’s the big questions hanging over Cuomo’s agenda, which marks the beginning of the wrangling between him and lawmakers that will result in a budget deal later this year.

Will Cuomo continue his retreat from aggressive education changes?

During Cuomo’s address three years ago, he famously called teacher ratings “baloney,” kicking off a bruising battle with the teachers unions that resulted in an unpopular plan to evaluate educators.

Since then, he has mostly backed away from major K-12 education initiatives. He retreated from his stance on teacher evaluations and sat by as the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the most controversial aspects of the law. He has since thrown his weight behind the union-backed strategy of turning struggling schools into community hubs that offer social services and after-school programs, and has delved into higher education with the “Excelsior” scholarship.

As Cuomo prepares to run for re-election this year and is considered a candidate for president in 2020, he is unlikely to push controversial education plans that will spark a new round of battles.

On the issue of teacher evaluations, the Board of Regents has halted the use of student test scores in teacher ratings until until 2019. Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he would be surprised if the governor revisited the issue this year.

“But,” he added, “I’m not prepared to rule it out either.”

How will funding changes affect this year’s agenda?

New York is bracing for a trio of school-funding challenges that could rein in Cuomo’s ability to boost education spending this year.

The state faces a projected $4.4 billion state budget deficit even as the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul signed into law by President Trump last month is expected to hit tax-heavy states like New York especially hard. At the same time, the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers are calling for major cuts in federal spending.

In response, New York’s Board of Regents, who set education policy, have requested a more modest budget increase this year. Meanwhile, state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, said in a statement that “spending restraint should be a top priority.” And Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, cited funding threats from Washington as a top concern heading into the 2018 legislative season.

Cuomo is only unveiling his policy priorities Wednesday. His proposed budget, which will include the total amount he wants the state to spend on education, will come later.

Will Cuomo promote charter schools?

Last year, charter-school funding was a major sticking point in the budget process.

The showdown pitted charter-school advocates — who said they were owed a $1,500 per pupil spending increase — against the Democratic-controlled Assembly. In a compromise, the final deal increased charter funding by $500 per pupil and allows charter funding to grow along with district-school funding starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Even after the deal, advocates say charter schools still get less money than traditional ones — and are pushing for increased charter spending this year.

“I think it’s a fundamental unfairness,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “Should [parents] be penalized if the public school that works for their child is a charter?”

Meanwhile, advocates for district school funding argue that schools across New York State are still owed billions in education dollars under the terms of a school funding lawsuit.

What will happen in higher education?

The centerpiece of Cuomo’s 2017 speech was a plan to provide free tuition to the state’s public colleges and universities for students from low-income families.

This year, Cuomo has signaled he wants to go down a similar albeit less flashy track. The proposal he previewed would add new loan protections for students, including a requirement that colleges inform students annually of their loan amounts and a law that would prevent New Yorkers from losing their professional licenses if they fall behind on their student loans.

His school meal plan would require state colleges to have food pantries.

The proposals indicate the governor wants to mount a longer campaign for college affordability. After the state created the Excelsior scholarship last year, many advocates argued there was much more work to do to battle student debt and help low-income students pay for college.

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: