Archive for April, 2009

New York Times reports on education studies: AP teachers worried about rapid growth; NCLB not closing gaps

April 30th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

In recent days the New York Times has reported on a couple education research studies.

A survey of 1,000 Advanced Placement teachers by the Fordham Institute found that “more than half are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened as districts loosen restrictions on who can take such rigorous courses…”

The article notes that participation in AP grew by 45 percent between 2004 and 2008.The study found that the teachers were generally satisfied with the program’s quality. But, writes the Times,”More than half, 56 percent, said they believed that ‘too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.'”

Growth in AP participation has been slower in New York State; our state had a head start and has long been a leader in participation.  Also, we rank second among the states, slightly behind Maryland, in percentage of students earning a “3” or higher on AP exams.

Conducting its own research, the Times concludes that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has not succeeded in closing achievement gaps between white children and children of color.  It notes that since 2004, results on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests have improved for black and Hispanic children have improved, but so have results for white students, leaving gaps “stubbornly wide.”

The Times observes, “Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law…”

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Swine Flu Advice

April 30th, 2009 by tomrogers

When I completed my doctoral studies, one of my nieces helpfully noted that despite my new title, I wasn’t “a real doctor.” Obviously, offering an opinion on precautions districts should take with Swine Flu will require more background than exhaustive study of Sergiovanni and Fullan.

Thankfully, on Monday, state Health Commissioner Richard Daines (a “real” doctor) and State Education Commissioner Richard Mills issued joint statements on the Swine Flu. They can be found here.

The materials issued by the state agencies include model news releases and letters to parents for districts to adapt and use.

At this point, they are urging preventative measures like handwashing to minimize the transmission of germs and are signaling the possibility that if the flu progresses, they may determine that it is necessary to close schools. However, they have not recommended that step yet; and so far, confirmed cases have been limited in number.

At this time, we’d recommend tracking governmental advice closely. In addition to the SED weblink above, you can visit the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

For those who want to be updated in real time, you can follow the CDC’s Twitter feed. If there are any major changes in official advice, we will update you via the listserv and this blog.

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Preliminary data: Proposed school tax levies to rise by 1.9 percent on average

April 29th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The State Education Department has compiled most of the school property tax card data filed by school districts for their May 19 budget votes.

The data confirms what we have been telling reporters and policymakers for weeks:  that despite a relatively low state aid increase, most districts are proposing local tax increases below what they sought a year ago and far below what has been common in past years of lean state aid.

Statewide, proposed changes in tax levy average 1.9 percent, compared to 3.3 percent last spring.*

Last year district efforts to hold down tax increases were assisted by a near record increase in state aid (8.9 percent).

This year, state aid is increasing by only 1.9 percent, mostly due to increases in expense-based aids.  Foundation Aid is frozen at last year’s level, meaning that most districts are receiving no additional help in paying for salaries, benefits, utilities and other general costs.

In 2003, the last time state aid was cut, proposed local school tax increases averaged 10 percent.

Proposed changes in spending average 2.3 percent, compared to 5.3 percent a year ago.

Over 80 percent of districts are proposing spending increases below 4 percent, the figure set as the maximum allowable increase in spending under a contingency budget before any exemptions are applied.  Districts are subject to this cap if they are unable to gain voter approval for a budget.  Exemptions can make the cap higher or lower than 4 percent for individual districts.

As more complete data becomes available, we will report on patterns among districts of varying wealth.

In past times of lean state aid, poor districts have commonly proposed the smallest spending increases, or biggest tax increases, or as happened after the 2003 state aid cuts, both.

*Figures presented here are calculated by averaging the percentage changes in spending and tax levy reported by each district.  Different averages would be produced by totaling the spending and tax levy for all districts for the two years and computing the percent change in those sums.

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State Budget Update — Good News, Bad News

April 29th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

New York State government is routinely criticized for being dysfunctional and short on transparency.  But there are ways in which our state government is improving.  Beginning in the last years of the Pataki Administration, the Governor’s Budget Division has been releasing much more information on the state of the state’s finances.

Yesterday’s 526-page report on the enacted state budget is an example.  It is a “good news, bad news” document.

The good news:  The state closed a combined 2008-09 and 2009-10 structural deficit of $20.1 billion.  It was the largest gap in state history, equivalent to 37 percent of General Fund revenues.

Also, so far the budget appears to remain in balance.  One might presume that less than one month into the fiscal year, that would be a safe bet.  But there had been worries that April 15 tax returns might reveal further erosion in revenues.  The New York Times reports another milepost will come June 15, when quarterly personal and corporate tax bills are due.

More good news, at least for the time being:  Because the state has so far used only about one-half its federal stimulus aid, and because some of its other gap closing actions have recurring benefit, the projected state deficit for next year (2010-11) is estimated to be “only” $2.2 billion.  State leaders have had ample practice in closing gaps of this magnitude.

The bad news:  In effect the state has built itself a budget cliff to fall from in two or three years, unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the state and national economies.

The federal stimulus funds are expected to be used-up by the end of 2010-11, and the increase in personal income tax rates for upper income New Yorkers is due to expire at the end of 2011.  Consequently, future budget gaps are projected to spike back up to $8.8 billion in 2011-12, and to $13.7 billion  in 2012-13.

In a statement, Governor Paterson said, “Federal stimulus funding provided the state a soft landing as it transitions to a new fiscal reality, but much more needs to be done to get our fiscal house in order. This year we took the first step toward implementing reforms that will make our State government more cost-effective and accountable, and we must continue the important work of reining in State spending in the future.”

The budget report also presents assumptions about what will happen with School Aid next year and thereafter.  These asssumptions need to be evaluated with the understanding that the state will need to close the overall deficits projected in the report and that could result in lower School Aid figures than assumed now.

For next year, the report projects School Aid will increase by $563 million.  Essentially, a repeat of this year’s School Aid package is anticipated:  freezing Foundation, High Tax, and Universal Prekindergarten Aids, and allowing expense-based and categorical aid formulas to run.

A difference next year will be that the state will begin the cycle with the federal stimulus aid already in hand.  Therefore, it can be expected that the Governor would use the remaining education stabilization aid to fund his proposal, leaving the Legislature to find other resources to pay for any additions it wishes to make to School Aid.

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Governor Paterson attempts to restrict unfunded mandates

April 28th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The Governor Paterson is getting a lot of attention for an Executive Order he issued yesterday to restrict the development and imposition of unfunded mandates by state agencies.

Here is the core part of the order:

“No state agency shall recommend, propose, publish or submit any legislation or regulation containing a mandate without an accounting of the impact of such mandate on local governments, which shall include (a) the fiscal impacts of such mandate, (b) a cost-benefit analysis, (c) documentation of input sought and received by affected local governments, and (d) proposed sources of revenue to fund such mandate.” The order goes on to require that this ‘accounting must be transmitted to the Governor’s chief aides prior to action, except when public health and safety requires swift action.

In other words, the order does not prohibit unfunded mandates. Also, existing state law already requires some attempt by state agencies to estimate the fiscal impact of proposed regulatory mandates. But the new order would add more detailed requirements for agencies to follow.

The order goes a step further than existing law, in requiring agencies to prepare a local fiscal impact statement to accompany any legislative proposal imposing a mandate. Again, it is common practice for agencies to estimate local cost implications for these proposals, but the order prescribes more detail, including a requirement to consult with state associations, “including but not limited to” those representing counties, cities and towns, and the New York State School Boards Association.

Presumably, these requirements would apply to any new Metropolitan Transportation Authority financial rescue plan developed by the Governor’s Office or the MTA.  Plans advanced so far have included a payroll tax to be paid by employers in the MTA region, including school districts and local governments.

Significantly, the order’s requirements do not apply to mandates originating from the State Legislature.

Finally, the order requires agencies to report by December 1, 2009 on “any proposed changes to such regulations which could reduce the impact of existing mandates on local governments and generate property tax relief for New York State property taxpayers.” This wording does not seem to require agencies to reduce the impact of mandates, only to report on any proposals which might.

Governor Paterson also renewed his support for a property tax cap and mandate relief, but did not offer new mandate relief ideas yesterday.

During his last term (while I worked on his staff), Governor Mario Cuomo declared a moratorium on proposing or approving new unfunded mandates.

More recently, both the current and immediate past chairs of the Senate Education Committee (Suzi Oppenheimer and Stephen Saland, respectively) have refused to allow unfunded mandate bills to be reported from that committee.

My observation for superintendents has been that you may not have felt any impact from these past efforts, but you would have felt an impact without them – more unfunded mandates would have been imposed on schools.

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National standards gaining traction?

April 28th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The idea of national education standards is gaining traction once again. It emerged during the administration of the first President Bush and was pushed by President Clinton. But these efforts bumped against the nation’s tradition of state leadership in education policy and never amounted to much.

Writing for his old magazine, former TIME managing editor Walter Isaacson offers a concise summary of why this interest is gaining steam at this time and how national standards might be implemented now.

Isaacson explains that leaders across the political spectrum, beginning with President Obama, have begun to call for higher standards, benchmarked to those of economically competitive other nations.

He also explains the process that might result in what are being referred to as “common” standards, or “state-developed national standards”:

…there is already a process under way that could, if properly nurtured, take charge of writing common national standards. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers [the association of state education commissioners] have been working with a nonprofit called Achieve Inc. In 2001, Achieve helped launch the American Diploma Project, which establishes curriculum standards that align with what a graduate will need to succeed in college, the military or a career.”

Isaacson wrote before an April 17 NGA-CCSO meeting expected to draw representatives from 25 states. Instead 41 states were represented, including New York, by Commissioner Mills and new Regents Chancellor (i.e., chair) Merryl Tisch.

He also explains that the federal stimulus bill created a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will allocate to support school innovation and performance improvement initiatives, including standards reform.

He quotes Secretary Duncan,

“If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America. I know that talking about standards can make people nervous, but the notion that we have 50 different goalposts is absolutely ridiculous.”

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Regents appoint Interim Commissioner to start July 1.

April 21st, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Concerned that their search for a permanent successor to retiring State Education Commissioner Richard Mills will not be finished before his scheduled departure, the Board of Regents today designated Carole Huxley to serve as Interim Commissioner, starting July 1.

Ms. Huxley served as SED’s Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education for 24 years, retiring in 2006.  In that role, she oversaw the State Museum, State Library, State Archives, aid to libraries, public radio and television, and local government record repositories.

Though probably not well known to school officials, Ms. Huxley is well known by SED employees and to Albany insiders.

She is a solid choice to lead the Department during a challenging transition.  In addition to facing a change in leadership, the Department has been asked to formulate plans to eliminate 199 positions — nearly one-half its state tax-supported workforce — by July 1.  She is probably a reasssuring choice for SED employees.  She will not be a candidate for the permanent post.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said, “Having Carole in place will ensure a seamless transition in leadership as the Board continues a wide and exhaustive search for the next Education Commissioner. Carole will be the bridge that connects the leadership of Rick Mills with the next Commissioner.”

Commissioner Mills said, “Carole is an inspired choice to connect the current work of the Department with the Department of the future.  I am certain that under her watch the Department will continue to move forward while preparing for the next Commissioner.”

The Department’s news release is available here.

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State Education Department facing 199 employee layoffs

April 8th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Two weeks ago, Governor David Paterson’s director of state operations advised agency heads that the administration would be asking them to assemble plans for 8,900 layoffs of state employees due to failure to secure agreement with state public employee unions to make cost-saving concessions.  For example, the Governor’s proposed budget had assumed that scheduled salary increases would be deferred.

This week, the Governor announced that he was reducing the number of layoffs to 8,700 and was exempting management/ confidential employees because he was unilaterally rescinding a scheduled 3 percent raise for these non-unionized workers.

Yesterday, the Governor’s budget director assigned position reduction targets to each state agency, to be achieved by July 1. Elimination through attrition is permissible, but not likely to be sufficient to hit the targets.

The State Education Department is being asked to eliminate 199 positions.

This is almost one-half the Department’s General Fund workforce — the employees paid from general state revenues.  This seems like a disproportionately high target.  The 8,700 positions targeted across all agencies amounts to about 6.4 percent of the statewide General Fund workforce.

The total SED workforce is around 3,200 employees, including staff working with school districts, colleges, cultural institutions, and licensed professionals, as well as those working in the State Museum, State Library, State Schools for the Blind and Deaf, and adult vocational rehabilitation.

Most SED employees are funded from federal grants or fees paid by users of services.

General Fund positions are especially valuable because the Department has more flexibility in the roles they can be assigned to perform.

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Retirement waves may cause teacher shortages in some states, but for New York the wave has already crested

April 8th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The New York Times reported on a new study forecasting a nationwide shortage of teachers due to escalating retirements.

But that wave of teacher retirements has already washed over New York State.

The report finds New York near the bottom in the percentage of teachers over age 50 and thus approaching retirement.

New York is one of three states with 41 percent of its teachers over age 50.  Only Kentucky has fewer — 40 percent.

The report observes that attrition among new teachers is also a factor.  The Times notes, “with one of every three new teachers leaving the profession within five years, a loss of talent that costs school districts millions in recruiting and training expenses, says the report, by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a nonprofit research advocacy group.”

No doubt some New York districts and perhaps regions will experience teacher shortages.  But in many regions, some of the need for teachers has diminished with declines in student enrollment.

In a presentation for the State Board of Regents in September, I noted that all upstate regions away from the Hudson River Valley have been averaging enrollment declines of more than 1 percent per year over the past five years (see slide 19).

The passing of a wave of retirements creates other problems for New York schools.

The Commission on Property Tax Relief noted that as long as retirements were continuing at a high rate, schools realized “turnover savings” by replacing retired veteran teachers with less expensive newcomers.  That helped offset some of the cost of salary increases and additional school hires intended to reduce class sizes or improve student services.

The Property Tax Commission’s final report observed,

“Absent the impact from an above-average number of retirements, it is estimated that teacher salary growth for school districts could be approximately 2 percent higher. As teacher retirements taper off in future years, school district salary expenditures will increase (p. 36).”

The president of the group issuing the teacher shortage report forecast other financial consequences of extensive retirements:

“In the ’60s we recruited many baby-boom women and men, and the deal we made was, ‘You’ll have a rewarding career and at the end, pension and health benefits,’ ” said Tom Carroll, the commission’s president. “They signed up in large numbers and stayed, and now 53 percent of our teaching work force is getting ready to collect. If all those boomers walk into retirement, our teacher pension systems will be under severe strain, with the same problems as the auto industry.”

Having experienced the retirement wave ahead of most states, New York will also confront the fiscal challenges it brings in advance of most states.

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Times profiles new Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch

April 6th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

On Saturday, the New York Times ran a profile of the new Chancellor (chair) of the State Board of Regents, Dr. Merryl Tisch.  It provides some insights into her family background, concerns and operating style.

We expect her to be a forceful leader of the Regents, as the article indicates:

Dr. Tisch’s ability to press her agenda – closing the achievement gap among demographic groups, bolstering career and technical education, and giving equal access to disabled students are among the priorities – is strengthened not only by her ascent to chief regent but also by her rank in New York’s ruling class as the wife of James S. Tisch, the chief executive of the Loews Corporation, a conglomerate that includes hotels, insurance and oil-drilling operations.

Reflecting her direct style and personal connections, the Times quotes Dr. Tisch, “When my refrigerator is broken, I don’t call the service department.  I call the head of G.E.”

The State Education Department will be undergoing a transition with Commissioner Mills’ departure around the end of the school year.  With billions of federal funds available on a competitive basis, this would be a bad time for uncertain leadership at SED.  Having a strong board chair may be fortuitous right now.

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