setting the agenda

Cuomo will push to raise charter cap, slow tenure, revamp evals in sweeping overhaul tied to new funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Gov. Cuomo promised an aggressive education agenda this year, and he delivered.

Cuomo announced plans to push for a broad overhaul of state education policy on Wednesday, which will include raising the state’s cap on charter schools, increasing the state’s role in teacher evaluations, and lengthening the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure.

Cuomo’s plans aren’t guaranteed to become policy: The changes require legislative action, and the negotiations that precede a final budget deal often lead to unexpected outcomes and concessions. But they form the broadest, most ambitious set of changes he’s proposed as governor, and set the stage for fierce policy fights with teachers unions and other advocates.

“Our education system needs dramatic reform, and it has for years,” Cuomo said. “This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years and for so many reasons.”

In exchange for the legislative changes, Cuomo said he would increase funding by $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent — essentially meeting teacher unions halfway, as they have requested a $2.2 billion increase.

Here’s a breakdown of the governor’s proposals.

Teacher evaluations: Cuomo’s proposal would increase the portion of a teacher evaluation controlled by the state from 20 percent to 50 percent, which for many teachers would boost the significance of state test scores. It would also diminish the principals’ role by relying on the observation of an independent evaluator.

The state’s roughly 700 school districts have a patchwork of evaluation plans, which Cuomo described as “baloney” on Wednesday. His proposal is an attempt to stop what he has called “local inflation” of scores, which has been more evident outside of New York City.

Cuomo’s proposal would restrict district plans by requiring the other half of a teacher’s rating to come from classroom observations, and would make high scores on both halves necessary to earn an overall “effective” or “highly effective” rating.

Cuomo stressed that he wants the evaluations to create incentives, too. He proposed offering bonuses of up to $20,000 to teachers with highly effective ratings, just as he did in last year’s speech. Those bonuses would require the agreement of the district and the local teachers union, though, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he still wasn’t interested.

“Individual merit pay? It’s been completely debunked,” Mulgrew said.

Teacher tenure: Cuomo is proposing that teachers only become eligible for tenure after five consecutive years of “highly effective” or “effective ratings.” That would be a significant increase from the current three-year probation period, and if a single “developing” rating could derail a teacher’s path to those job protections, it would add to the pressure associated with teacher evaluations.

Other legislation Cuomo is proposing would keep a student from being assigned two teachers with “ineffective” ratings two years in a row. (The plan does not specify how that would work for middle and high-school students with multiple teachers.)

Charter schools: Cuomo’s proposal would add 100 charter schools to the state limit, bringing the total to 560, and remove the regional distinctions that restricted some charters to New York City and others to parts of the state where there was less demand. That could set up future fights over the cap the next time the limit nears — and with the Success Academy network recently applying for 14 charters at once, for example, that might not be so far into the future.

The governor said he would also be proposing “anti-creaming legislation” to ensure charter schools are teaching their “fair share” of English language learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities. The provision would require schools to submit enrollment rates for each of those groups of students to the state at the beginning and end of each school year and bi-monthly — providing a trove of new data to support or refute the idea that high-needs students leave charter schools during the school year. It would also require charter schools to add lottery preferences for low-income students, students enrolled “in a failing school,” and children of staff members.

Cuomo would also increase per-pupil funding for charters by $75 — not a full win for charter school advocates, who want their school funding increases to be commensurate with increases for district schools.

Struggling schools: Cuomo called for a new law that would appoint nonprofit groups, school-turnaround experts, or other school districts to oversee schools that have fallen on the state’s lowest performing list for three years.

Based on a turnaround model used in Massachusetts, the law would give those “receivers” the authority of local superintendents, allowing them to restructure struggling schools, overhaul their curriculums, and offer extra pay to attract successful teachers. It would also let them to override labor agreements in order to hire “underperforming” teachers and administrators.

The receivers would be required to bring a bevy of support services for students and their families to the schools — a plan to turn them into “community schools” that mirrors New York City’s program for troubled schools.

Cuomo proposed setting aside $8 million for those overhauls. The schools would also get priority for state grants that fund pre-kindergarten, extra learning time, and early-college high school programs.

Teacher training: Cuomo proposed closing down teacher training programs where 50 percent of graduates fail to pass a state certification exam in three consecutive years.

He also proposed paying the CUNY or SUNY tuition to “top candidates” who commit to teaching in state schools for five years after graduation, creating a statewide teacher residency program, and mandating new GPA and GRE requirements for education programs.

School governance: Cuomo threw support behind the renewal of mayoral control of New York City schools, and encouraged other cities to apply for mayoral control as well.

Teacher discipline: Teachers facing accusations of physical or sexual abuse should get an expedited hearing process, Cuomo said.

What 'underfunded' means

What you need to know to follow the money debate behind the teacher walkouts

Colorado teachers wearing "Red for Ed" gather in front of the Capitol on the first of two days of protest around school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Colorado teachers are marching at the Capitol this week for more school funding and better pay. Advocates for more education funding will point to the $7 billion that the state has withheld from schools since the Great Recession, while fiscal conservatives point to the billions the state has spent on schools in those same years.

Here’s what you need to know to follow the money debate behind these teacher days of action.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are underfunded?

Back in 2000, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that said the state had to increase K-12 education funding every year based on inflation and population. It was meant to reverse years of budget cuts in the 1990s.

When the Great Recession hit and revenues declined, state budget writers didn’t think they could meet that obligation and pay for other functions of state government, so they started holding money back. This reduction is known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor.

The negative factor ballooned to more than a billion dollars in the early aughts as the lagging effects of the recession hit government revenue.

Impact of the negative factor on Colorado education spending

Source: Joint Budget Committee legislative staff *Does not include federal money or local mill levy overrides.

State spending on K-12 education actually declined in some years, and many school districts froze pay and cut programs. More recently, lawmakers have reduced the negative factor and increased education spending, but the state continues to hold money back.

So that’s one thing people mean when they say Colorado schools are underfunded.

Republicans dispute this characterization. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a split decision in 2015, ruled that the state’s school funding and use of the negative factor is constitutional. Schools have other sources of revenue, including federal dollars and local property tax revenue.

The National Education Association’s 2018 state rankings puts Colorado 28th in per-pupil funding, when federal, state, and local dollars are included.

There are other considerations. Analyses that look at equity – how fairly Colorado distributes money among students and districts – give the state low marks. There’s major variation in per-student spending around the state. Colorado also spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity.

At the same time, the state is paying a larger share of K-12 costs than ever because tax provisions in the constitution have reduced local property taxes in many parts of the state.

What about local property taxes?

After state officials calculate the amount of money each school district should get, they collect that money first from the local property taxes. If that doesn’t meet the amount set by the formula, the state fills in the rest.

School districts don’t actually benefit much from increases in property values. If a school district collects more money because homes are worth more, the state holds back a corresponding amount.

This arrangement would seem to benefit the state at the expense of local districts, but in many rural communities, two conflicting provisions in the state constitution have had the effect of reducing assessed value. Because the state fills in the lost revenue, the state’s share of education spending is going up.

There are two ways local school districts can raise additional local money, but both require voter approval. Some communities, including Denver and Boulder, have passed significant tax increases to give their schools more money. Other communities in the state have never been successful in asking their voters for more local funding. Greeley’s District 6 had never passed a mill levy override until this November. District 27J in Brighton made the decision to go to a four-day week after voters turned them down for a 16th time.

How much do Colorado teachers make?

According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average teacher salary for 2017-18 is $52,708.

However, there’s considerable variation across the state and even within districts.

Teachers in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000. Many small rural districts have average salaries close to $30,000, an amount that’s hard to live on anywhere.

Colorado districts with the highest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Colorado districts with the lowest average teacher salaries

Source: Colorado Department of Education

The highest paid teacher in Aurora makes $102,115, and the highest paid teacher in Denver Public Schools makes $115,900. Those teachers would be veteran employees with decades in the classroom. Starting salaries in those districts are $39,757 and $41,689 respectively.

Starting salaries for new teachers and average salaries in 2017-18:

DISTRICT Starting salary Average salary
Denver $41,689 $50,757
Jeffco $38,760 $57,154
Dougco $37,160 $53,080
Cherry Creek $39,405 $71,711
Aurora $39,757 $54,742
Westminster $42,859 $58,976
Adams 14 $38,194 $57,394
Sheridan $35,029 $49,535
Deer Trail $33,660 $41,582

Teachers’ ability to get raises also varies considerably. Districts have salary schedules that provide for raises after a certain number of years of service or for getting more education, but in some districts, the range is narrow, with veteran teachers stuck close to $50,000.

Some districts, like Denver, also have performance incentives or offer additional money for working in schools where students have high needs.

Many teachers experienced pay freezes during the Great Recession but are starting to get raises again. However, when adjusted for inflation, teacher’s salaries have declined in many districts.

A look at teacher salary over time:

DISTRICT 2007-08 average pay 2017-18 average pay Percent change 2007-08 wage in 2018 dollars Percent change when adjusted for inflation
Denver Public Schools $47,197 $50,757 7.54% $57,794 -12.18%
Jeffco Public Schools $52,512 $57,154 8.84% $64,310 -11.13%
Dougco $52,078 $53,080 1.92% $63,771 -16.76%
Cherry Creek $57,152 $71,711 25.47% $69,985 2.47%
Aurora Public Schools $52,755 $54,742 3.77% $64,600 -15.26%
Westminster Public Schools $54,466 $58,976 8.28% $66,695 -11.57%
Adams 14 $46,679 $57,394 22.95% $57,160 0.41%
Sheridan $45,467 $49,535 8.95% $55,676 -11.03%
Deer Trail $36,654 $41,582 13.44% $44,884 -7.36%

 How does that compare to other states?

For many years, Colorado ranked in the bottom tier for teacher salaries, but the most recent ranking from the National Education Association put Colorado at No. 31. The rise in the rankings might reflect some districts giving raises after years of pay freezes as education funding slowly increases or as voters approve new local taxes.

Colorado teacher salaries are still well below the national average of $60,483.

And a recent report ranked Colorado dead last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The report compared how much teachers earn compared to other people who also had college degrees. The study adjusted for number of hours worked.

That is, teachers in Colorado take the biggest hit for choosing to go into education as opposed to some other profession.

What does PERA have to do with all this?

Colorado’s public employee retirement system, in which teachers participate, has an unfunded liability of somewhere between $32 billion and $50 billion. As lawmakers try to address this, various proposals have called on both employees and employers to pay more.

Retirement benefits, like health insurance, make up a growing share of school districts’ personnel budgets, so if they have to pay more into PERA, that’s less money for other education needs, including teacher pay.

And teachers who feel like their paychecks are already too small also don’t want to pay more.

Proposed solutions also call for reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees, raising the retirement age, and putting more of taxpayers’ dollars into the system.  

Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the right balance, and whatever they decide will have implications for district budgets and teacher paychecks.

Teachers don’t get Social Security benefits, and many of them say that solid retirement benefits are an important part of compensation. They fear that a less generous package will make it even harder to hire and keep teachers.

What about the marijuana tax money?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. This money can’t be used for things like teacher salaries or books.

This year there’s bipartisan legislation to dramatically increase the amount of marijuana money that goes to fund this capital construction. Currently, only the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenue goes to the program. This change would set aside the first 90 percent of marijuana tax revenue for the construction grant program, up to $100 million.

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates.

Other marijuana money is set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can get to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

I'm just a bill

The debate is back: New York state leaders introduce bill to overhaul teacher evaluations

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Top New York lawmakers are pushing for an overhaul of the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system, which would eliminate the current law’s focus on rating teachers based on standardized tests.

A bill introduced in the Assembly on Thursday would prohibit the state from requiring districts to use grades 3-8 math and English test scores or Regents exams in teacher evaluations. Instead of championing one statewide evaluation system, the bill would allow local districts to craft their own teacher rating systems.

The bill would mark a dramatic about-face for New York on an issue that has galvanized protests, helped fuel one of the country’s largest testing boycott movements, and affects more than 70,000 teachers in New York City alone.

“The Assembly Majority has heard the concerns of New York’s educators and parents and we know that teachers’ performance and that of New York’s students may not be truly reflected in test scores,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. “Students learn in a variety of ways and this bill reflects that reality.”

The state’s teacher union has been pushing for immediate action on the teacher evaluation law all session, but lawmakers had so far been silent on the issue. Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic primary, came out in favor of immediately repealing the current teacher evaluation law earlier on Thursday, though lawmakers and union officials say they had been working on the bill long before her announcement.

The legislation has some important starpower behind it: It’s being sponsored by Heastie and Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan. In Heastie’s statement about the bill, he noted that it comes after conversations with lawmakers, educators and the governor. A spokesman for Cuomo suggested that the governor is interested in tackling teacher evaluations this year but did not expressly support or oppose the bill. 

“We have been working the Legislature and education community for months to address this issue and would like to reach a resolution this session‎,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.

If Cuomo supports this or similar legislation, it would mark a major reversal for the governor, who led the charge to create a new teacher evaluation system in 2015 that allowed half of a teachers rating to be based on test scores. Since then, one in five families boycotted state tests in protest of a host of state educational policy changes, including teacher evaluations.

In the wake of the law’s passage, Cuomo appointed a task force to review the state learning standards, and members called for a pause on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The state’s Board of Regents soon passed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English testing being used in teacher ratings until 2019.

But as the moratorium comes to an end, state officials have started to grapple with the lightning rod subject again. Members of the state’s education policymaking body favored a slow, deliberate process with teams of experts and educators.

The state’s teachers union, which has pushed for quicker action, expressed excitement about the bill.

“We thank Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Education Chairwoman Cathy Nolan for listening to parents and educators and introducing a bill that would ensure that students and teachers are once again valued as more than a test score,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a statement.

The head of New York City’s teachers union praised the measure and suggested that Nixon’s teacher evaluation comments earlier in the day were not driving support for the bill.

“We are happy to hear of any and all support for a measure to limit the problems of standardized tests.  But let the record be clear: we have been working with legislators and the executive branch for months to reform New York State’s obsession with and misuse of standardized tests,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “Ms. Nixon’s 11th hour public statement on the bill – while it may score political points – won’t help it get enacted.”