STATE OF THE STATE ANAYSIS
January 8, 2014
“OUR CHILDREN DESERVE NOTHING LESS THAN THE BEST”
GOVERNOR KEYS ON TECHNOLOGY, FULL DAY PRE-K IN STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS
The 2014 State of the State Address focused on the following issues in public education:
- Saying “the best long term economic strategy is to have the best educational system in the world”, Governor Cuomo indicated that the next step is to “reinvent classrooms” with new technology. He proposed a $2 billion statewide school technology bond referendum next fall that would provide broadband internet access for schools across the state, as well as tablets and other equipment for students. Calling technology the “great equalizer”, Cuomo said that the information superhighway is inaccessible for too many of our students. Receipt of the funds would be dependent on the school district filing a technology plan.
- Without providing any specific details, the governor called for full day, universally provided pre-kindergarten. The Board of Regents, the newly elected mayor of New York City and others have called for increased funding for pre-k.
- Cuomo also proposed a Teacher Excellence Fund to provide up to a $20,000 performance based bonus to all teachers rated as “Highly Effective” in “struggling schools and chosen districts”. The $20,000 figure was listed as amounting to an average increase in a teacher’s pay pay of 27%. There were 127,000 teachers outside of New York City rated “Highly Effective” last year.
- As previously announced, the governor offered a two year respite from property tax increases, provided that municipalities and school districts stay within their tax levy cap in the first year and participate in the sharing of services or consolidate in the second year. The written version of the speech cited NYSSBA’s research on mergers and consolidations. Cuomo proposes amending state law so that new tax rates can be phased in at an appropriate pace determined by the merging of school districts.
- Cuomo proposed legislation to hold officials responsible for reporting patterns of harassment based on religion or race. Under the proposal, officials would be required to report these patterns to either the state police or the State Education Department, depending on where the alleged harassment took place. Failure to do so, according to the governor, would result in removal from that official’s position. While the speech referred to the responsibility falling on “state officials” to report, it was unclear whether local school officials would be included within the requirement.
- The State of the State also included two items relating to higher education. The first was a scholarship program that would provide math and science majors a full scholarship to state or City universities, provided they agree to work within the state for five years. The second proposal was the creation of the first college to focus on emergency response, homeland and cyber security.
- While wrapping up the address, but without providing any specific detail, Cuomo said “We’re going to invest in our schools like never before.” In the Republican “equal time” message, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos also called for a substantial increase in state education aid.
CUOMO’S EDUCATION COMMISSION FINAL REPORT LEAKED IN STATE OF THE STATE
While Governor Cuomo’s New New York Education Reform Commission has yet to release its final report, the written version of the State of the State speech includes the text below. The phrasing seems to suggest that these will be the commission’s recommendations:
- Expand the use of technology in classrooms, particularly at our highest-needs schools, through incentives and other measures, as a way to complement teaching and academic programs to improve student achievement.
- Commit to expanding high quality early education by building on the success of New York State’s first-ever State-funded full-day pre-kindergarten program and bringing to scale access to high-quality full-day pre-kindergarten, starting with New York’s highest-needs students.
- Reward the best and brightest teachers by establishing a teacher excellence fund that rewards highly effective teachers and attracts and keeps talented educators in the classroom, particularly in our lowest-performing schools.
- Implement programs that connect high school to college in order to create greater college opportunities, especially for under-represented students, both by replicating successful programs such as college scholarships for high-performing students and by expanding innovative programs like P-TECH so at-risk students have a chance to attain both a high school diploma and an affordable college degree.
- Strategically invest in higher education to increase college enrollment and improve outcomes for all students, including by offering paid internships, expanding academic programming, and facilitating access to college degree programs though innovative methods.
- Focus on efficiencies and reinvest administrative savings into the classroom by expanding opportunities for shared services and reducing obstacles to the school district merger process (a NYSSBA legislative priority).
The annual State of the State Address is a retelling of accomplishments and a declaration of aspirations. Taken in that light, the 2014 State of the State was notable for several potentially beneficial programs to improve public education, as well as for the glaring omission of any reference to the state’s difficulty in implementing the Common Core Learning Standards. The speech began with a master teacher discussing the state’s public education achievements during the governor’s tenure, specifically mentioning teacher and principal evaluations. She also listed the New New York Education Reform Commission’s recommendations listed above. The speech pointed to the vital nature of public education in planning the state’s future, while also describing the tremendous disparities in opportunities, based on local wealth. It was interesting however, to hear the teacher say that ‘New York is investing more in education and the classroom than ever before’…yet state aid for schools in 2013-2014 is still below 2008-09 levels.
According to the governor, “some schools have the internet, some don’t even have a basketball net” and “in some of our schools, the most technologically advanced piece of equipment is the metal detector.” He called for New York State to have the “smartest classrooms in the nation” and for the state to invest in public education like never before (perhaps foreshadowing a large aid increase.)
From his technology bond referendum to finally making Universal Pre-K universal, the governor’s aspirations for public education took the limelight, but even the written version of the speech began to scale back on the rhetoric. Yes, we need to reimagine classrooms with state of the art technology for all, but the written version says there will be strict eligibility requirements for schools, including filing a technology plan with the state. And there’s the whole issue of potentially paying back a bond years after the purchased equipment has become obsolete. Yes, the state will pay your tax levy increase if you stay under the cap, but that doesn’t stop local taxpayers from picking up the tab after the first year, etc. In addition, funding for prekindergarten programs must be adequate and sustainable in the long term, especially now, as districts continue to make difficult financial decisions to balance their district budgets. Deterrents to establishing or expanding existing prekindergarten programs have included insufficient building capacity and inadequate funding for instructional and other necessary staff and for school bus transportation to and from programs. Making pre-k universally available also means making it sustainable and locally affordable.
Property tax relief is certainly welcome in theory. The first year of the governor’s proposal would surely lead to passage of local school budgets that are at or below the cap, since passage would mean no increase in taxes attributable to rising costs. But getting schools to stay within the cap will either mean a very healthy school aid increase or dramatic cuts to programs and services. Beyond the tax relief proposal, there are rumors of tying state aid to APPR agreements again. For the governor to make good on both tax relief and provide sufficient state aid, he is counting on a claimed $2 billion surplus. Yet, even the chart behind him as he spoke shows the $2 billion surplus comes in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, not this one. This seems odd for a governor who has been critical of past leaders spending money they don’t yet have in hand. Certainly this is an election year and the annual address is his opportunity to show improvement in the state’s condition. However, school officials have the right to be skeptical of plans to infuse large amounts of state funding on a temporary basis, given its history of later reducing the aid and leaving abandoned programs, services and staff in its wake.
Finally, the speech featured some glaring omissions. There was nary a word on testing, student privacy or other issues surrounding the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards that the governor had no small part in creating. While this is understandable, given their politically charged nature, the fact that even in his rhetoric he has left the Board of Regents and their commissioner to their own devices is telling. It’s true that our state constitution puts the governor outside of the day to day operations of our public educational system, but for the self-proclaimed “students’ lobbyist”, the lack of attention seems incongruous. Also obviously absent was a mention of the infamous Gap Elimination Adjustment. Surely the platitudes regarding offering the best educational system possible would ring hollow in the face of the continued imposition of systemic cuts to our schools. Without question, school leaders will have more clarity when the governor offers his Executive Budget Proposal in two weeks. Until then, boards of education appear justified in cautious optimism for potentially important initiatives and the lack of mention of any threatening proposals or negative rhetoric about the perception of the failures of public education. Boards are also justified, though in a collective heavy sigh and a whispered “let’s wait and see.”
STATEMENT OF NYSSBA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR TIM KREMER
The governor’s State of the State address today presented several promising initiatives for schools. Among them: a $2 billion “Smart Schools” bond referendum, universal prekindergarten, and rewards for highly effective teachers. These are all sound proposals. In today’s world, information moves at lightning-fast pace. Schools must be properly equipped to handle this flow in order to effectively educate students. As described, the governor’s Smart Schools referendum could represent a major step in helping districts get up-to-speed.
School boards support a universal prekindergarten program: one that is not tied to competitive grants and offers every district the opportunity to participate. We only ask that the governor’s soon-to-be-released budget provide sufficient state aid for schools to maintain or add quality early childhood education programs.
Finally, whether lawmakers adopt a circuit breaker, a state reimbursement of property tax increases, or some other means to keep property taxes in check, we urge them to do so in a way that allows schools to raise the local revenues that they need to ensure each and every child a quality education. We look forward to working with the governor, legislative leaders and the State Education Department to improve our schools.
NYSSBA RELEASES 2014 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES
Today’s State of the State Address marks the official beginning of the 2014 Legislative Session. Following passage of NYSSBA’s Legislative Platform at the 2013 Annual Business Meeting last October, NYSSBA has been briefing legislative and executive department leaders on the top issues facing public education. Each state legislator has been provided a copy of the priorities and (now that legislators are back in Albany) meetings with rank and file legislators will begin. Local school board members will also be provided copies of the legislative priorities, in the hope that their meetings with local legislators can be informed by concise, timely and relevant arguments.
The first order of business for the governor will be to complete preparation of his Executive Budget proposal, to be released no later than January 21st. That budget plan will contain his recommendation for state school aid. Governor Cuomo has hinted at a 5% overall increase in aid this coming year. Several other entities have made state aid recommendations as well, including the Regents and the statewide Education Conference Board (which includes NYSSBA). To view NYSSBA’s 2014 Legislative Priorities or the various state aid proposals being urged by educational groups, click on the links provided below.
USDA BOWS TO SCHOOL CONCERNS: MODIFIES NUTRITION STANDARDS
This week, following months of complaints from schools that the new federal school nutrition standards were too restrictive, the US Department of Agriculture announced that they are being permanently modified. NYSSBA (with other state and national education organizations and local school districts) lobbied hard for the changes, after hearing that students were going hungry and school food service programs were facing significant revenue loss from students foregoing the insufficient meals. While the effort was a well-intended attempt to curtail childhood obesity and support healthy eating habits, its implementation proved so restrictive that some schools dropped participation in the program altogether (after seeing students bring their own lunches and snacks, rather than purchase from the federally approved menu. Regulators acknowledged that they have overreached, ignoring the practical implications of such a significant shift in school practice and student habits.
Members of Congress praised the move, as they were poised to pass legislation supported by NYSSBA, forcing USDA to scale back the requirements. Many pointed to the problem of a uniform approach that ignored individual, local school district needs. The move puts an end to the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research needed to comply with the complicated regulations and caloric restrictions as low as 650 calories per meal.
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