targeting dollars

Denver Public Schools already provides more money to educate low-income students, but it wants to do more

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools is preparing to change the way it doles out funding for low-income students, upping the amount it provides schools to educate the district’s highest-needs students.

They include children who are homeless, in the foster care system and whose families receive food stamps. Such students automatically qualify for free school lunches, which is why they’re referred to as “direct-certified” students. About 29 percent of DPS students in kindergarten through 12th grade are direct-certified, according to district figures.

Next school year, DPS plans to provide schools with an extra $80 per direct-certified student. Doing so would cost the district about $1.5 million, according to officials. That money would come out of DPS’s general fund, which officials said has been slightly buoyed by overall enrollment increases and budget reductions in some central-office departments.

The $80 is in addition to the approximately $500 extra the district already provides for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because their families are low-income. Two-thirds of DPS students meet that criteria, which includes students who are direct-certified.

“This is absolutely the right thing to do,” Erik Johnson, the district’s executive director of finance, said at a recent school board work session at which the plan was presented.

That’s because students facing homelessness or who are in the foster care system or whose families are significantly below the poverty line often need more help, district officials say.

While federal regulations prevent the district from tracking the state test scores of direct-certified students, DPS calculations show that schools where more than half the students are direct-certified are more likely to earn a lower school rating, which is largely based on test scores and student academic growth. Of the 24 DPS schools where more than 50 percent of kids are direct-certified, only five earned the district’s top two school ratings.

Free and reduced-price lunch is “quite a broad category,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said, and giving schools more money to educate direct-certified students is an effort to “make sure we’re … targeting our supports and resources where the needs are greatest.”

“There are significantly different degrees of need between students who are homeless or in the foster care system versus students who come from two-parent, low-income, working-class families” and might qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Boasberg added.

District records show that not all schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch also have high percentages of direct-certified students.

For instance, Fairview Elementary in west Denver and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school in southwest Denver, both serve about 200 students, 98 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But 82 percent of kids at Fairview are direct-certified, while only 32 percent at Math and Science Leadership Academy are.

Fairview has the highest percentage of direct-certified students in the district, records show. Among the schools with the lowest percentage of direct-certified students are Denver School of the Arts, which is a magnet school that draws students from across the region, and Slavens K-8 school in southeast Denver. At both, just 3 percent of students are direct-certified.

School board members reacted favorably when the plan was explained at a recent meeting. It’s currently part of the district’s proposed 2017-18 budget, which the board must adopt this spring.

Around the country, at least one other urban district, Boston Public Schools, uses direct-certification numbers to distribute money to schools to educate low-income students.

The Denver school that stands to gain the most funding next year is Place Bridge Academy, which serves about 1,000 kids in preschool through eighth grade and has special programming for refugee students. According to the district’s preliminary calculations, Place Bridge, where 62 percent of students are direct-certified, would get an extra $48,400 next year.

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”