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As state budget deal nears, what you need to know about education issues on the table

The New York State capitol.
The New York State capitol.
Chalkbeat file photo

As state budget negotiations begin to come to an end, the implications for New York City schools are growing clearer. Legislative leaders have leaked a possible price tag for spending on the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and facilities funding for charter schools appears to be in the works this year.

But there’s still a lot that we can’t know about the city’s school funding picture for the coming year, or about any law changes that will be made as part of the budgeting process. That’s because the budget only gets settled when a big-picture deal that balances education issues against a host of other concerns facing the state gets hashed out behind closed doors sometime between now and the end of the month.

“We’re close but we don’t have a final deal,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told reporters today, shortly after emerging from a budget meeting with Senate leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The final deal will have big implications on New York City, from pre-K and after school programs already taking shape; to support for its charter schools; to how much aid will be left for its elementary, middle and high schools. Here are the big education issues that Silver and the other three men who head the state government are weighing as they set the state’s budget.

City priorities: Pre-K funding on way, but after-school prospects less clear

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s flagship initiative is to expand the city’s pre-kindergarten and after-school offerings. He pegged the expansion — which he is moving forward with executing even before shoring up the funding — at $530 million for next year. But Cuomo nixed de Blasio’s proposal to raise the funds through new taxes and instead proposed raising the statewide pre-K budget by just $100 million. Later, after de Blasio leaned on allies in the Senate and Assembly to squeeze more money out of Cuomo, the governor signaled that he would be willing to issue essentially a blank check to New York City for pre-K.

The budget deal will decide how big that check really is and how far de Blasio will be able to go toward making pre-K access truly universal in the city. Sources say the final number for New York City alone would be around $300 million, just shy of the $342 million that de Blasio says he needs for the pre-K component of his plans. That dollar figure would allow de Blasio to execute much of the pre-K planning that is underway.

It’s unclear how much, if any, money will be available for de Blasio to move forward with planned his $190 million after school program expansion, which would more than double the number of middle schools offering after school. Asked if the budget would include money for after-school, Sen. Jeff Klein today reiterated that legislators were focused on funding pre-K.

“Again, it was always $300 million [that] was the target for a full-day universal pre-k for the City of New York,” Klein said. “And we’re moving in that direction.”

The city is already collecting applications from groups that want to operate the after school programs.

Charter schools: Facilities funding likely, but what else is unclear

Following a high-profile spat between de Blasio and charter school advocates in New York City, the Senate proposed a package of bills aimed at ensuring charter schools either receive rent-free space in district buildings or facilities funding to operate in private space.

Silver said Tuesday, for the first time, that he’s open to supporting the latter scenario. In New York City, such a move would be a boon to 68 schools that operate in private facilities and frequently gripe about their funding inequities. It would also open the doors to the prospects of more charter schools opening in private space in the future, which many operators have avoided for years because of the funding difficulties.

While it appears likely that some facilities money will be available to charters in the final budget, a number of questions remain, including how big the pot of funds for charter schools would be, what kinds of spending would be covered, and how much New York City schools would benefit.

The state’s $2.7 billion building aid program for district schools, which could be the model for charter schools, has limits on how much of a project can be reimbursed and rules about how much they can cost. As it does with per-pupil funding formulas, the state factors in local wealth when setting building aid reimbursement rates. In relatively poor cities, such as Buffalo, the reimbursement rate is higher than 80 percent, while in New York City, which has a stronger tax base, the state picks up only about half of facilities costs.

A more aggressive proposal, to require New York City to give 25 percent more per-pupil funding to charter schools that operate in private space, which would account for the share of facilities costs not covered by the state. That proposal is still under discussion, sources say, but there is disagreement on the 25 percent figure. It is seen as less likely to make it into the final budget deal than the building aid plan, seen as a compromise position.

School aid: Will the city get what its schools are owed?

In addition to whatever New York City receives for pre-K and after school programs, K-12 schools are expecting to receive an extra $234 million in state-provided aid, according to the Independent Budget Office. In sum, the city projects it will get about $6.1 billion in foundation aid, representing an increase that isn’t currently in Cuomo’s budget proposal. Advocates and lawmakers have continued to apply late pressure to redirect spending into the foundation aid formula, which is designed to support school districts with large populations of high-need students.

But whatever is likely to come through is still unlikely to come anywhere near what New York City is supposed to be receiving under 2007 funding legislation that was enacted following a legal settlement between the state and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. In 2012, the city was supposed to receive $7.6 billion in funding through a formula set up in 2007 to funnel more money to needy districts. In reality, the city is projected to receive about $6.3 billion by 2015, according to the IBO.
Common Core and teacher evaluations: No big surprises expected

The state is in the process of implementing two major changes to schools, new teacher evaluations that factor in student achievement and new standards known as the Common Core. Confusion and dissent about the changes led the Assembly, Senate, state Board of Regents, and advisors to Cuomo all to put forth proposals to improve the rollout. (While the rest of the state is in their second year of implementing new evaluations, New York City teachers and principals are in their first.)

Now, Cuomo and the legislature seem sure to enact some of these fixes through legislation. One thing that all of the proposals have in common are to ban testing in early grades; a reduction in the number of tests required as a result of new teacher evaluations; and to insulate students who receive low scores on Common Core-aligned tests from being penalized. It’s likely that legislation enacted as part of the budget process will enshrine some of those ideas in law.

“We’re talking about doing something so that the testing that takes place in april will be less dramatic, less traumatic to the students,” Silver said on Tuesday.

The prospects are less certain for more aggressive changes that only some lawmakers and advocates want to see. Most significantly, the Assembly and many Senate lawmakers — as well as the city and state teachers unions — have also called for a two-year moratorium on tying Common C0re-aligned tests to teachers’ evaluation.

But Cuomo has insisted that digging into the state’s 2010 teacher evaluation law, which he helped usher into implementation, is a non-starter. That means it will be a heavy lift for legislators to get the moratorium into budget legislation.

Asked if changes in the budget would affect the teacher evaluation law, Silver said “probably not.”

But just because changes to teacher evaluations don’t happen in this budget session doesn’t mean they are off the table forever. The Senate and Assembly return for a regular legislative session in just a few weeks.

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