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Albany 101: Here are the big NYC education issues to watch in the new legislative session

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The empty chamber of the New York State Assembly at the State Capitol Building in Albany. The new legislative session begins Jan. 5.

Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

When New York state’s legislative session begins this month, don’t expect to see the familiar rallies of advocates, union leaders and lawmakers pressing the governor to boost money for schools.

That’s because state lawmakers passed a budget last session that, for the first time, committed to fully cover Foundation Aid, the formula that provides the funding base for school districts and sends more money to those with higher needs. As a result, school districts received a total $3 billion increase in the last state budget, with about a third of that just for New York City schools. 

“Funding is always an issue, and this year is utterly unique,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents. 

Without a fight over Foundation Aid, education advocates and lawmakers are shifting their focus for the next legislative session. Various groups are looking to raise more awareness on different programs, such as career and technical education programs, student mental health, and improving access to advanced courses. 

Lawmakers must also once again decide whether to extend mayoral control of New York City’s schools — just as a new mayor takes the helm. 

Here are some big issues to catch up on before the new session begins Jan. 5. 

Mayoral control

Eric Adams becomes the city’s chief executive on Jan. 1, just five months before his control of New York City’s school system is set to expire. 

Mayoral control — initially implemented under Mayor Michael Bloomberg — was meant to replace a fractured and often corrupt structure of school boards. Though lawmakers have consistently renewed it, mayoral control has come under scrutiny.

Many parents and advocates have described feeling powerless under such a system. That sentiment appeared to grow as the city oversaw two rocky school reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic, with the principals union taking a rare vote of no-confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio and ex-Chancellor Richard Carranza’s leadership.

But it’s unlikely that mayoral control will be repealed this year without a clear replacement — especially as the first Black mayor handed such power takes office, political observers said. 

“I think people want to give [Adams] a chance — that’s the main reason,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The second would be the optics of maintaining mayoral control through what is 20 years of white mayors and then suddenly wresting control of the system when a Black mayor is elected.”

State Sen. John Liu, a Queens Democrat who chairs the senate’s New York City education committee, has been critical of mayoral control under the de Blasio administration. But he also suggested it’s unfair to penalize Adams because of concerns with how his predecessor has operated.

Lawmakers could extend mayoral control with tweaks to the governance structure, such as giving parent councils or City Council more power.

For example, when lawmakers extended mayoral control in 2019, they required two new members be added to the largely mayoral-appointed Panel for Educational Policy, which approves contracts and school closures. One of the new members must be elected by the presidents of the city’s 32 local parent councils. Still, the panel is typically considered a rubber stamp for the mayor (aside from its remarkable rejection last year of the city’s ‘gifted’ testing contract). 

“There is little question that some change is in order,” Liu said. “There are clearly things that work and things that don’t work, and I have my own ideas of what needs to be fixed and what doesn’t need to be fixed.” 

He declined to elaborate, but said to expect hearings over the matter. He also pointed out that Chicago will revert from mayoral control to an elected school board, starting in 2024, with elections phased in through 2026. 

A budget without the Foundation Aid fight

Before his resignation, ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo stunningly agreed to a budget that promised to fund school districts with the money they’re owed under Foundation Aid by 2023 — a move he’d resisted throughout his time in office.

Gov. Kathy Hochul went a step further in October, announcing that New York had settled a lawsuit that charged the state with inadequately funding Foundation Aid. The state agreed to increase school spending by $4 billion by the 2024 fiscal year (which starts April 1, 2023), or else risk restarting the lawsuit — helping to solidify the promise made in the budget.

But discussion over Foundation Aid is not over.

Before the pandemic, state lawmakers held hearings over updating elements of the formula, which has not been changed since its inception in 2007. 

Multiple advocates and Liu said they’re currently focused on making sure the state fulfills its funding promises over the next two years. 

“Next year would seem to be a time to call for not necessarily changes, but starting the process of considering changes,” said Lowry, of the superintendents council. 

Mental health, AP courses, vaccine mandates and more

With Foundation Aid a much less pressing issue, some advocates are now looking to fund new initiatives. 

The New York State Educational Conference Board, a coalition of large organizations, including the state teachers union, is calling for updates to a more than 30-year-old formula that helps fund career and technical programs. The stagnant level of funding has made it difficult for districts to expand career and technical education programs, the board said. New York’s Board of Regents, which sets state education policy, made a similar plea in its budget proposal. The state will likely find a booster for these programs in New York City, as Adams talked about the importance of career and technical programs on the campaign trail.

The coalition is also calling for more money to address student mental health. A pre-pandemic survey found that two-thirds of the state’s superintendents were most concerned about student mental health needs. The matter has become more pressing as students have gone through a tumultuous transition back to school buildings, the board said. 

“Some schools have been able to begin responding to this by increasing mental health staff and training, but the need far outweighs the resources currently available,” the board wrote in a position paper, which didn’t call for a specific dollar amount. 

Another focus will likely be on the inequitable access to advanced courses. In New York City, for example, white students are roughly 1.5 times more likely than their Black and Latino peers to take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, according to an analysis from New York Equity Coalition.

Ed-Trust New York, an education advocacy organization that has long highlighted the issue, will push for the passage of a bill requiring school districts to automatically enroll students in grades 7-12 in advanced courses, such as Advanced Placement classes, if they can “demonstrate readiness.” Readiness would be defined by the state education commissioner, but could include performance on state tests. Families would have the choice to opt out.

The bill, sponsored by Liu, also requires districts to provide detailed explanations to parents about the benefits of taking advanced courses.

Finally, with COVID vaccines now approved for all children ages 5 and older, some may lobby the state to mandate those shots for students. In October, the New York chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics said they supported such a mandate once the vaccines were fully approved and no longer under emergency approval for children younger than 16. That same month, Hochul said a mandate for schools, which already require a slew of vaccines, was possible but wanted to first “empower” parents to get their children vaccinated and follow infection trends before deciding to impose such rules. 

Some bills requiring mandates have already been introduced, but political observers say that such legislation won’t likely be successful because the matter is too controversial.

Bloomfield pointed to the pushback from people fighting state and city vaccine mandates, including for healthcare and education workers.

“I think they have a harder time right now with the mandates that are already in place where there’s been considerable pushback fomented by the anti-vax movement,” Bloomfield said. “They already have their hands full with those vaccination requirements.”

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