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.

Emergency fix

Mold-infested Detroit school will be closed for the rest of the year, school board meeting ends in chaos

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.