Future of Schools

New York state officials call for $2.1 billion bump in education funding

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
The New York Board of Regents meet at their December 2018 meeting.

State officials proposed on Monday a $2.1 billion funding boost for education across New York, largely focusing on increasing dollars to support high-needs school districts.  

The proposal — which still needs the Board of Regents’ final approval on Tuesday —  is about $500 million larger than the request last year, which was shrouded in concerns over a multi-billion-dollar state deficit, a threat of federal spending cuts, and a tax overhaul that could have hurt state revenue.

Monday’s proposal focuses on several of last year’s priorities: increased funding for foundation aid, the formula that sends extra dollars to high-needs districts; improving education for English language learners; and expanding pre-K programs throughout the state.

At the meeting, Regent Judith Johnson raised concerns over how many new initiatives or programs the state Department of Education could realistically shoulder without a promise for additional staffing.

The Educational Conference Board, a coalition of statewide organizations that includes the state teachers union, called for a slightly larger amount, $2.2 billion. Last year, the Regents’ request was $400 million short of what the ECB called for.

Each year, the Regents’ proposal for state aid highlights their priorities for lawmakers, who make the final decision on what will get funded and by how much. Last year, the Assembly approved a budget that increased education funding by $1 billion, still significantly short of what the Regents wanted.

One year later, the political climate in Albany is different. The state education department’s budget request comes right after an election that ushered in Democratic control of the state Senate and new progressive-minded lawmakers who have campaigned on increasing school funding.

State officials, however, dismissed the idea that the election influenced the size of their request.

When asked whether they think state lawmakers will be more receptive to their request this year, Regent and State Aid subcommittee co-chair Beverly L. Oudekirk said, “We can always hope.”

Chancellor Betty Rosa said budget discussions start over the summer and involve conversations with education officials and groups, such as advocates for English language learners, who want to see certain programs or initiatives funded. Many of the funding requests were priorities last year, too, officials said.

“And in reality I don’t think the chairs are thinking even in September, ‘What’s November going to look like?’” Rosa said.

Broken down, $1.66 billion of the state-aid request is for an increase of “foundation aid,” which accounts for a third of the state education funding for New York City. Reflecting a focus on students who are learning English as a new language, about $85 million of this amount would specifically go toward “accelerating” initiatives for English language learners. If the legislature grants any part of this request for students learning English as a new language, the state Department of Education would guide districts on how to use the money.

The foundation aid apportionment grew out of a 13-year lawsuit contending the state’s funding formula was unconstitutional and did not fairly provide for districts that needed the most support.

But even after the formula was established, the state department of education says there is still a funding gap of $4.1 billion. In Monday’s proposal, officials  proposed a three-year phase-in that would increase foundation aid by almost $5 billion dollars, accounting for inflation, by the 2021-2022 school year.

A total of $404 million was requested for reimbursement-based aid for districts, which funnels into support for buildings, transportation, special education, and the consolidation of federal pre-kindergarten programs.

Another $26 million would go toward more universal pre-K programs across the state, most of that to create 4,000 more seats for four-year-olds.

Career and technical education programs would receive a $25 million boost.

Regent Johnson was concerned that the ambitious request — which she applauded — would be too heavy of a lift without more staffing.

“This is not going to roll out the way it’s described,” Johnson said, calling the state education department “woefully understaffed.”

In its request, the state asks lawmakers to fund any new programming with dollars to support staffing for its implementation. But, as is the case for the entire budget request, it’s up to lawmakers to decide how big a staff is necessary.  

“We are one of the agencies that often — we don’t get the resources that are needed to do the best job we can,” Elia said to Johnson. “It is a taxing process. As we get these approvals, I’m telling you right now we are not going to have the staff to do them at the level you want.”

Regent Catherine Collins expressed anger over not seeing specific funding to address suspension rates, saying she was inspired by a Buffalo Daily News article about an Education Trust New York report that found black students in Buffalo are twice as likely as their white peers to be suspended.

In New York City, suspensions continue to stir discussions about school discipline reform. Mayor Bill de Blasio has implemented a set of reforms that have made it tougher to suspend students for certain issues. Under his administration, suspensions have fallen by about 32 percent over nearly five years.

Advocates are now pushing to reduce the maximum length of suspensions.

Elia said that it’s up to local decision makers — such as school boards and superintendents — to determine what portion of state funds, if any, to use to address issues like suspensions.

The New York State United Teachers applauded the proposal.

“We welcome the Regents’ strong, ongoing support for a significant new investment in public education — one that would enable our school districts from Long Island to Buffalo to better meet students’ growing needs,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a press release.

In a statement, the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy group, hopes the “new reality in the New York State legislature” will mean more funding for education and urged state lawmakers to heed funding calls from state education officials.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to present his entire budget proposal next month, while legislators will also consider a spending plan during their next session, which starts in January. The deadline to pass a budget is April 1.

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”