Show me the money

New York’s top policymakers outline a plan to help open up the black box of school funding

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

Schools across New York will have to start breaking down how much money they spend on students next year – a change required under federal law that advocates hope will create greater transparency.

State officials at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting stressed the importance of opening up the black box of school funding to ensure that money is going to the schools and students that need it most. But they also tried to address concerns that the change would become an administrative burden on schools.

“At this point in time, I can’t say people are jumping for joy over doing this,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “But I can say they understand why it’s being done.”

Currently, the state publicly reports how much money flows from the state to each district. After this changes goes into effect, districts will have to explain how they take that money and divide it among individual schools. The state is also hoping to put the information into an accessible package that will allow policymakers and community members to easily compare resources among schools.

“How do you have the same expectations if you’re spending this amount in one place and this amount in another place?” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa during Monday’s meeting.

School districts will begin tracking their budgets in the 2018-19 school year, but will not have to report that information publicly until December of 2019, state officials said Monday.

One wrinkle to the plan, though, is that reported funds will only include federal, state and local money. Several Regents raised concerns that the reporting requirements exclude non-governmental sources of funding, particularly in New York City where parent-teacher associations can raise extraordinary sums of additional money. Policymakers worry that without displaying this information, any tool the state provides will paint a misleading picture.

“There are many schools in New York City where the parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Regent Lester Young. “Poor people can’t raise that kind of money.”

The board provided an example of how the information could be displayed. (However, state officials cautioned this is only a sample and is certainly not a final recommendation.)

The sample included two bar graphs. The first shows per-pupil funding by school, starting with the highest funding level and dipping to the lowest. The second shows how much schools would gain or lose if the hypothetical district implemented a weighted funding formula.

Elia also made it clear that she does not want this to become a “compliance issue”  for districts, while acknowledging that some locales are concerned about tackling the additional task. She said that in order to smooth the transition, state officials have already met with stakeholders and that the state is convening a technical workgroup over the spring and summer to craft reporting guidelines.

It’s unclear exactly how much this will change reporting in New York City, which already includes per-student funding by school. State officials said they cannot say whether the city will have to change the way it reports information until they have a better sense of what will be required statewide.

However, state officials also said the city will have to fit into whatever statewide framework they devise, which could include a more accessible format that allows for easy comparisons between schools.

Another concern expressed by several policymakers is that while these changes will expose funding disparities, they will not force districts to make changes to funding distribution. Elia has come out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal that would allow state officials to review and reject certain school districts’ budgets with an eye towards equity. (At a conference of school board leaders in February, she said, “I am not interested in approving your budgets.”)

But without that kind of authority, Regents pointed out that any changes will have to come from local leaders who want to alter their funding structures.

“The role that we play will only be as good as the district’s willingness to receive and use it,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

let the games begin

Assembly pushes for $1.5 billion boost to education spending

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

In a tight budget year, New York State’s Democratic-led Assembly wants to increase education spending by $1.5 billion, officials announced late Monday night.

The proposed increase  which would bring total education spending to $27.1 billion  is significantly more than the governor’s suggested $769 million increase. Still, the amount is a slightly smaller boost than the Assembly backed last year, which is likely a reflection of a difficult fiscal situation faced by the state this year.

State officials are fighting against a budget deficit, a federal tax plan that could harm New York, and the threat of further federal cuts. The potential lack of funding could be the only sticking point in an otherwise quiet budget year for education matters.

As part of its education agenda, the Assembly backed a number of programs it has in the past. The plan supports the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is designed to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, and “community schools,” which act as service hubs that provide healthcare and afterschool programs.

The release of this plan kicks off the final stretch of the state’s budget process. The governor has already outlined his proposals and the Senate will likely follow soon, setting up the state’s annual last-minute haggling.

The budget is due by April 1, but could always be resolved later similar to last year.