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Wrapping up an unproductive-on-education legislative session

The waning days of the 2013 legislative session in Albany were, as expected, unproductive when it came to education.

In fact, in most arenas, the session was marked more by what didn’t get done than by what did. Many of the big-ticket items on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda, including a Women’s Equality Act and reforms to campaign finance and ethics laws, appear dead after failing to pass in the final days and hours of the session. For education, which was not a priority, most of the work was done when the budget passed in April. The highlights included a boost to state education aid, another round of competitive education grants, and yet another round of changes to the state’s troubled teacher evaluation law.

As we rounded up last year, here are some of the education highlights and lowlights of the legislative session.

1. Budget or bust

State school aid was a key issue this year, so much of the buzz among education advocates was focused on budget negotiations. New York City was due to lose $250 million from its baseline budget as a penalty for failing to reach an on-time teacher evaluation agreement. Elsewhere, districts sought relief from two a cap on state aid increases that Cuomo placed control costs after two years of cuts that totaled $2.7 billion.

Cuomo conceded in both areas. New York City is still planning to give back a one-year penalty of $240 million — though a lawsuit has so far prevented that from happening — but it will not be penalized annually. And the city saw a significant boost to other budget lines, making up for the penalty.

The legislature also increased overall state aid by more than $1 billion, including favorable changes to the way poorer districts  are funded. “It’s the best budget in five years,” said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, a left-leaning organization that lobbies for funding in high-need districts. Easton noted that schools are still getting less money than they did in 2008, before the financial recession hit and shortly after then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer began complying with a lawsuit that required more pay for poorer districts.

The legislature approved Cuomo’s $75 million proposal to fund a variety of competitive education grants, including for expanded pre-kindergarten, extended learning time, early college high schools, and community school models. He also used some negotiating muscle to change the evaluation law so that districts must implement teacher evaluation systems even if their agreements with local labor unions expire.

2. Last-minute pushes fail

Last year, some significant education legislation was passed in the session’s final days, including a bill that allowed the city to lower age regulations for students required to attend school and a bill that would block teacher evaluation ratings from the public.

This year’s last minute push was not as successful. A flurry of bills that passed in just one of the legislative chambers, known as one-house bills, caught the attention of education advocates in the waning weeks. The Assembly passed two bills that would, to varying degrees, give parents the ability to decide what kinds of personally identifiable data of their children are shared in schools. They passed despite opposition from the State Education Department and groups representing school board members and superintendents. Teachers unions did not take a position.

A private school tuition bill in both the Assembly and Senate that would help Catholic schools and Yeshivas increase enrollment also emerged late in the session. It was a revision of original legislation that passed last year in both houses before getting vetoed by Cuomo, in part because language would require districts to consider religious and related family beliefs when assigning special-needs students to taxpayer-funded private schools. The bills did not pass this year.

Another piece of legislation to give districts with high rates of charter school enrollment picked up some steam as well. The bill would have allowed students who attend charter schools to receive more per-pupil funding if at least 20 percent of their district’s students attend charter schools. Currently, Albany is the only district in the state that would qualify. New York City charter school enrollment is at about 5 percent and is not expected to exceed 10 percent until 2017.

3. New York City’s prekindergarten gets more attention  

Last year, the legislature and Cuomo changed state law so that New York City could change the age of students required to attend prekindergarten. This year’s big pre-k legislation will require that all government vendors that provide services to students with disabilities be audited by 2018. The legislation, first reported in the New York Times, is an effort to control the soaring costs of the state’s special education prekindergarten, which is the country’s most expensive.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli introduced the bill after his office and a series of Times articles found instances of financial abuse by contractors and weak oversight by the city over how services are administered to children. The legislation passed in both houses but hasn’t yet been approved by Cuomo.

4. Looking forward

Education advocates are keeping a close eye on the work being done by Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission, which is meeting through the summer. Last year, the commission toured the state and its resulting recommendations helped guide the education section of Cuomo’s State of the State speech and his education agenda during budget negotiations.

Last year’s recommendations were seen as meant to forge a consensus between all members of the committee, which included union leaders and charter school founders. The agenda for the commission this year is already tackling thornier issues, including the debate over consolidating school districts with dwindling student populations. Nearly two-thirds of school districts in the state, 431, are projecting a decrease in enrollment this year, while spending increases are being driven mostly by teacher pension and capital costs.

The group recently announced that it will convene in New York City on July 9 to focus on issues concerning teacher preparation and providing wraparound services in schools.