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Three answers to look for in Cuomo's budget proposal today

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases his budget proposal for 2013-2014 later this afternoon, education observers around the state are hoping to have many questions answered.

While Cuomo has made headway on the education policy centerpiece of last year’s budget proposal, teacher evaluations, new issues are arising — including that New York City still doesn’t have a new evaluation system. Meanwhile, there is uncertainty over how much funding districts will receive from the state now that aid increases are determined differently than in the past. And Cuomo’s competitive grants program will likely get a fair share of attention, three weeks after he announced that he would be using grants to fund a slate of ambitious — and pricey — new education programs and services.

Here are three questions that Cuomo’s budget address is likely to address:

1. How much money will there even be? That’s a question that officials at the State Education Department are grappling with from their headquarters across the street from Cuomo’s office. The answer will depend on how conservative Cuomo’s budget officials were when they calculated personal income growth, the data point used to determine how much school aid increases.

Last year’s number — 4.1 percent — was based on a five-year average of personal income growth in the state and brought in $807 million for districts in the 2012-2013 school year (total state-funded school aid for this year is $20.3 billion). But now the state has switched to a model that considers only single-year changes in personal income. That model, budget experts say, is more volatile, leading to more uncertainty in the amount of state aid available to school districts.

This year’s state aid number will could likely fall by at least $100 million, based on early projections. But it could be even lower if Cuomo decides to use a more conservative projection that James Tallon, a member of the Board of Regents, has warned about.

Tallon, chair of the Regents’ state aid subcommittee, told his colleagues last week that his staff crunched personal income growth numbers and found that personal income grew by just 3 percent last year. The difference could mean schools could receive closer to $600 million — 25 percent less than the state parceled out last year.

“The signal I want to wave at everybody is, if I just took the most negative reading of the current numbers, the governor could come in at 3 [percent], which would take me … to $600 [million],” Tallon said.

Tallon and the Regents are proposing that Cuomo stick to his early projection of 3.5 percent growth, and there is additional pressure from outside groups to do the same.

There remains the issue of whether the state is adequately funding high-need districts. The state’s highest court ruled in 2007 that those districts should get a higher share of state education funds, but after two years of increasing their funding, the state pulled back on fulfilling the mandates set out in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling. Now, advocates are threatening a second lawsuit to claim $5 billion in promised but undelivered funds. Whether that pressure has had an impact on Cuomo’s budget proposal is yet to be seen. But a plan that does not pay special attention to high-need districts is sure to stoke the ire of those who say the state is not complying with its court-ordered funding priorities.

2. How much of the money will have to be won? One of the concerns that Tallon and others at the State Education Department have is that Cuomo will continue to expand his competitive grant program at the expense of the general state aid that goes to all districts. The grants are a funding policy that he’s embraced since his first days as governor, to some dissent. As part of the program, districts apply and qualify for additional aid on the condition that they agree to spend the money in specific ways.

This year’s budget will include at least $75 million in the competitive grants, based on funding set aside in last year’s budget. But Cuomo wants to use the grants to push for a lot of ambitious programs, including early childhood education, extended learning time, and schools that partner with outside organizations to provide extracurricular, health and mental services.

The scale of his grant proposals have left some wondering if he’ll go beyond the $75 million number. “He may make it bigger at the expense of other things in the budget,” Tallon said. “I hope not. ”

It wouldn’t be the first time that Cuomo’s grants programs put him at odds with state education officials. Last year, Commissioner John King told legislators that he thought Cuomo should scale back the program and allocate more of the money to cash-strapped districts.

King, Tallon, and the rest of the Regents want Cuomo to focus the $75 million on Universal Pre-Kindergarten and leave the general state aid alone.

“We just think there is just such compelling evidence for the potential of early childhood education that we would like the state to make a big bet on that — and a multiyear bet,” Tallon said.

3. How will Cuomo deal with the teacher evaluations issue? In last year’s budget deal, Cuomo used another carrot-and-stick approach to get districts to submit teacher evaluation plans, tying increased state aid to the plans. With the exception of New York City and a handful of other districts, the strategy worked.

But it left districts awaiting a messy situation next year, when most of the plans expire and unions and districts without new contracts will have to return to the negotiating table. In his annual address earlier this month, Cuomo said he would continue to pressure districts to have new evaluations each year by withholding state aid if they don’t renegotiate their plans after they expire.

“We want to keep in the model that in order to get the additional aid, you have to continue the evaluation process,” Cuomo said. Today’s budget proposal will provide a peak of how much he’ll look to withhold for districts that do not readopt evaluation systems next year.

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