money matters

Here’s how New York City divvies up school funding — and why critics say the system is flawed

Governor Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s priorities this year, he said recently, is to make sure that needy schools get their fair share of funding. 

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said earlier this month. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

If he really wants to know what New York City does with its school aid, he could start by looking at the city’s “Fair Student Funding” formula.

The city adopted the school-budget system in 2007 as a way to send more money to schools with the neediest students. It replaced a system where funding was tied to teacher salaries, which had advantaged high-performing schools that ended up receiving more money because they attracted more experienced teachers with higher salaries.

But a decade later, the funding formula has not lived up to its promise. Most schools have never received the full amount the formula says they’re owed, while some actually get more than their fair share. And some principals say the formula has had the effect of making veteran teachers hard to afford.

One example: At the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a number of veteran staff members recently qualified for longevity-based raises that added roughly $340,000 to the school’s expenses. Because the formula does not give schools more money when teacher salaries rise, the co-principals had to start charging families for after-school programs and cut a planned teaching position to make ends meet.

“Eventually if all of our teachers keep staying with us,” said co-principal Damon McCord, “we won’t have any money.”  

Now, as Cuomo shines a light on school-funding equity, here’s how the process works (or not) in New York City.

How does New York City divvy up school funding?

The funding formula that New York City adopted in 2007 sets school budgets based on the grades they serve, their type (for instance, whether they are vocational or selective), and their student populations.

Schools receive extra money for students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or are learning English. The idea is that needier students require extra support — and their schools need additional resources — if they’re to catch up with their better-off peers.

The formula also rewards certain selective schools, under the premise that high-achieving students also need extra attention to reach their full potential.

New York City is one of about 30 districts across the country to use this type of weighted funding system, according to the Baltimore Sun. About $6 billion of the New York City education department’s $30.8 billion budget flows through the formula, which is designed to cover schools’ basic expenses — most importantly, teacher salaries.

In addition to allocating more money to educate the neediest schools, the formula was also designed to give principals more power. Under this system, principals can decide whether to devote more of their budgets to seasoned (and costly) teachers, or to hire more junior teachers and spend the savings on an after-school program, for example.

The formula was also meant to impose some order on what was an opaque, freewheeling budget process. In the past, principals haggled with their superintendents for more money, favoring those who could best work the system, according to Eric Nadelstern, a former principal under the old system who was an education department official when the formula was adopted.

“You had massive inequities,” said Nadelstern, now a professor at Teachers College.The difference could amount to thousands of dollars per student, particularly for schools in middle-class neighborhoods and schools in poor neighborhoods.”

What’s wrong the city’s budgeting system?

The Fair Student Funding formula has never quite lived up to its ambitions.

When it was first adopted, city officials wanted to avoid taking money from wealthy schools, so instead they promised to raise poorer schools’ budgets. However, around the same time, the Great Recession hit, causing New York State to roll back planned increases in school aid to districts.

As a result, the formula has never been fully funded — and some poorer schools have never quite caught up to wealthier ones. Last year, only 23 percent of city schools received funding at or above the level to which the formula says they’re entitled, according to numbers provided by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That creates situations like the one inside a school building in Lower Manhattan shared by New Design High School, which serves a very high-needs student population but does not see its full allocation, and the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population but gets more than its fair share.

The dual language school where about 3 percent of students have a disability and 85 percent are poor  received 112 percent of what the Fair Student Funding formula said it was owed last year. By contrast, New Design where nearly 28 percent of students have a disability and 100 percent are poor got just 92 percent of its formula money.

“This whole system is just holding an old, antiquated, unfair system into place,” said Scott Conti, New Design’s principal.

Critics have also questioned the part of the formula that gives extra money to selective schools that enroll higher-achieving students — and which tend to enroll relatively small shares of black and Hispanic students. More than a dozen elite high schools get about $1,000 extra per student through the formula, which has added up to more than $100 million since 2012, according to WNYC.

Others have suggested that the city should spend less on district-wide initiatives, and instead give the money directly to schools to spend. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda devotes millions of dollars to a slew of efforts, including more computer-science classes, advanced courses, and college counseling. Some principals say they would rather the city pour that money into their budgets.

“My preference would be for them to cancel all those programs and give it all to the Fair Student Funding formula,” said a Bronx principal who asked to remain anonymous.

City officials say they are working to increase funding for the formula, and added that Equity and Excellence and other initiatives directly support schools. But they also said the city needs help from the state in order to fully fund the formula.

“By raising the Fair Student Funding floor citywide and making targeted investments through our Equity and Excellence for All agenda, this administration is investing more than ever in all our schools,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen in a statement. “To fully support Fair Student Funding, we need the state to meet its obligation to provide Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding.”  

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”