it's a deal

Breaking: State lawmakers reach budget deal with big wins for charters, community schools

PHOTO: NYS Governor's Office/Flickr
Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 State of the State address Wednesday.

Updated — One year after New York’s state budget negotiations turned into a drag-out fight over teacher evaluations, lawmakers came to a less controversial deal that will send more money to New York City’s district and charter schools.

All told, education funding is set to increase by approximately $1.5 billion, officials said Thursday evening, a figure that falls $800 million short of what the Assembly and many advocates had hoped for but will allow school budgets to continue to grow.

Charter schools will get their own big boosts: Schools across the state will receive $430 more per student, and the rule requiring New York City to help some charter schools pay rent will become permanent.

And in a move that symbolizes recent shifts in state education policy, up to $175 million will be directed toward turning struggling schools into “community schools,” borrowing a school-improvement strategy that Mayor Bill de Blasio has favored.

“I believe that this is the best plan that the state has produced, if it’s passed, in decades, literally,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, who later called the budget “the largest single investment in education in the history of the state of New York, period.”

Here’s what else you need to know about the deal, which is likely to come to a final vote Friday.

  • Overall education funding: A billion-plus boost

New York is set to spend $24.8 billion on education aid next year — a $1.3 billion increase in school aid. Additional education-related funds bring the total increase in education spending to $1.5 billion, which is the number lawmakers are touting.

It’s more than the $1 billion increase in education spending that Gov. Cuomo proposed in January. That is good for New York City, which needed more than what was included in Cuomo’s plan to balance its education budget, according to a March report from the city’s Independent Budget Office, though it remains unclear whether the additional funds will be enough to cover the costs.

The raise continues years of school aid increases, and will push New York’s per-student spending even higher than its current average of $19,818.

But advocates pushing for the state to meet its funding commitments under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit were disappointed again. (The state would need to pay $4.4 billion to meet the lawsuit’s demands.) The number also falls short of the Democrat-led Assembly’s proposal for a $2.1 billion jump.

“This budget fails to address fundamental educational inequality based on both race and income,” said Billy Easton, the executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education.

  • Community schools: A new statewide priority

The budget includes $175 million in funding to help struggling schools offer services like health care and after-school programs. That money will be targeted carefully at schools that need it most, not just at needy districts, Cuomo said.

“The priority should be the schools that need the most help in this state,” Cuomo said.

Of the $175 million, $100 million is included within the Foundation Aid, the $600-million-plus portion of the education spending that favors low-income districts.

Still, the total is notable, and signals that the state’s budget has shifted from focusing on new policies meant to increase accountability for low-performing schools to one that focuses on providing specific resources to those schools.

The budget also includes $20 million for an initiative to help boys and young men of color, according to an Assembly spokesman.

  • Charter schools: More funding will flow

Charter schools got a big boost. The budget deal included $54 million to increase the amount charter schools receive per student, a number double what Cuomo proposed. That amounts to a $430 increase per student next year.

The increase earned plaudits from charter advocates, but is unlikely to please the state’s teachers union, whose executive vice president called the increased support for charter schools a “radical, last-minute change” in an email to members on Wednesday.

Officials did not mention a number of other proposals that have been floated during the budget negotiations on Thursday night, including a measure to withhold funding from charter schools that fail to serve a high percentage of high-needs students. In January, Gov. Cuomo had also proposed un-freezing the formula that determines most charter school funding for New York City charter schools, rather than simply increasing per-student spending.

  • ‘Receivership’ and teacher evaluations: No changes

Cuomo left the impression that two education measures that dominated the attention of state lawmakers last year were left untouched: the “receivership” law that outlines how low-performing schools could be put under the control of an outside leader or group, and the teacher evaluation law.

Last year, lawmakers increased the weight of state test scores in teacher evaluations. But after that sparked significant backlash, the Board of Regents passed an emergency regulation that decoupled test scores from evaluations.

The governor said the receivership law was not changed and that education funding will still be dependent on districts creating teacher evaluation plans, signaling no major changes to either law snuck into the budget deal.

Cuomo’s unwillingness to revisit either receivership or teacher evaluations is one sign of how unpopular the two issues have become.

  • The Gap Elimination Adjustment: Gone

That funding cut, which has had a greater impact on higher-income districts than on low-income districts like New York City, is gone, to no one’s surprise. The Senate, Assembly, and the governor all proposed ending the spending gap, which was put in place during the financial crisis.

This article has been updated to clarify that the budget increases school aid by about $1.3 billion, but total education funding by approximately $1.5 billion.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”

Payment dispute

Fired testing company seeks $25.3 million for work on TNReady’s bumpy rollout

PHOTO: TN.gov

Tennessee officials won’t talk about the state’s ongoing dispute with the testing company it fired last year, but the company’s president is.

Henry Scherich

Henry Scherich says Tennessee owes Measurement Inc. $25.3 million for services associated with TNReady, the state’s new standardized test for its public schools. That’s nearly a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract with the state, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout.

So far, the state has paid the Durham, North Carolina-based company about $545,000 for its services, representing about 2 percent of the total bill, according to a claim recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

Measurement Inc. filed the claim with the state in February in an effort to get the rest of the money that it says it’s owed. Since then, lawyers for both sides have been in discussions, and the company filed a lawsuit in June with the Tennessee Claims Commission. The commission has directed the State Department of Education to respond to the complaint by Nov. 30.

“We’re moving forward,” Scherich told Chalkbeat when asked about the status of the talks. “… We’re simply asking to be paid for the services we provided.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen declined last week to discuss the dispute, which she called “an ongoing pending lawsuit.” A spokesman for the attorney general’s office also declined to comment on Monday.

Scherich said he and other company officials have not been called to Nashville for hearings or depositions.

“Our lawyers and the state’s lawyers are still skirmishing each other,” he said. “…They argue about lots of things. It’s kind of like we’re establishing the ground rules for how this process is going to proceed.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the firing of Measurement Inc. and the suspensions of most testing in April 2016.

Tennessee’s dramatic testing failure started on Feb. 8, 2016, when students logged on during the first morning of testing and were unable to load TNReady off the new online platform developed by Measurement Inc. The fallout culminated several months later when McQueen fired the company and canceled testing altogether for grades 3-8. In between were months of delays after McQueen instructed districts to revert to paper-and-pencil materials that would be provided by Measurement Inc. under the terms of their contract. Many of those materials never arrived.

The company’s claim suggests that the state was hasty in its decision to cancel online testing and therefore shares blame for a year of incomplete testing.

The Tennessee Department of Education “unilaterally and unjustifiably ordered the cancellation of all statewide electronic testing that occurred on February 8, 2016, following a transitory slowdown of network services that morning,” the claim says.

(In an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat the day before his company was fired, Scherich said Measurement Inc.’s online platform did not have enough servers for the 48,000 students who logged on that first day — a problem that he said could have been fixed eventually.)

The claim also charges that McQueen’s subsequent order to substitute paper test materials was “unnecessary and irresponsible” and impossible to meet because of the logistical challenge of printing and distributing them statewide in a matter of weeks.

In her letter terminating the state’s contracts with Measurement Inc., McQueen describes daily problems with the company’s online platform in the months leading up to the botched launch. “This was not just a testing day hiccup; the online platform failed to function on day one of testing,” she wrote.

McQueen said those experiences contributed to her department’s conclusion that Measurement Inc. was unable to provide a reliable, consistent online platform and left her with no option but to order paper and pencil tests. She also cited the company’s failure to meet its own paper test delivery deadlines for her ultimate decision to terminate the contracts and suspend testing.

The last sentence of the four-page termination letter says the state would “work with (Measurement Inc.) to determine reconciliation for appropriate compensation due, if any, for services and deliverables that have been completed as of the termination date after liquidated damages have been assessed.”

In addition to its invoices for work under the contract, Scherich said his company is owed another $400,000 for delivering test-related materials to the state after its contract was ended.

“We didn’t want to be a company that stood in the way of the programs of the state of Tennessee, so we provided all the information they requested,” Scherich said. “We were told we would be paid, we provided the information, and then we’ve not been paid.”

Founded in 1980, Measurement Inc. had been doing testing-related work for Tennessee for more than a decade before being awarded the 2014 TNReady contract, its biggest job ever. The company had a fast deadline — only a year — to create the state’s test for grades 3-11 math and English language arts after a vote months earlier by the legislature prompted Tennessee to pull out of PARCC, a consortium of other states with a shared Common Core-aligned assessment.

Scherich said the loss of the TNReady contract was “a major hit” for his company, but that Measurement Inc. has paid every employee and subcontractor who worked on the project. “We have had to go into debt to keep ourselves viable while we wait for this situation with Tennessee to be resolved,” he said, adding that the company continues to do work in about 20 other states.

To pursue its claim, Measurement Inc. has hired the Tennessee law firm of Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop, which has offices in Nashville and Knoxville.

“I’m sure we’ll work out something amicable with the state over time,” he said. “I’m an optimistic person. But I think our lawyers and their lawyers will have to have a lot of negotiations.”

Below are Measurement Inc.’s claim against the state, and the state’s letter terminating its contracts with the company.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details about the claim’s status.