Archive for May, 2009

Council in the news on school budgets

May 17th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

I’m quoted in two downstate weekend newspapers on issues in the upcoming budget votes.

The Journal News, serving Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester counties, ran a column noting that most school districts in their region had proposed budgets with low spending and tax increases, but asking whether it would be enough to satisfy voters.

The writer cited my blog post last week on voter turn-out patterns. We also had a long conversation. She quoted my observation, that looking at statewide averages, proposed school budgets this year have lowest tax increase in seven years, despite the lowest state aid increase in six years.

She also read me a letter from a voter and asked for my reaction. The voter commended her district on its low proposed tax increase but asked “what took so long?”

In part, I said that terrible economic news has been so pervasive that it made the need for spending restraint easier to justify to school communities.

Newsday wrote about the role of federal stimulus aid. At the end of the article, I’m quoted expressing hope that the increase in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) special education funding will be made permanent, noting that meeting the statutory target of funding 40 percent of costs has been a long-held goal of Democrats and some Republicans in Congress.

During my visit to Washington last month, there was strong support for that course among the New York delegation members whose offices we met with.

I spoke with the reporter at length and echoed what New York superintendents and I said to Congressional offices:  First, that the state budget could not have turned out as well as it did for New York schools without the federal stabilization aid, but it meant that schools were spared cuts, not that they had new resources.  Second, that schools would do good things for students with Title I and IDEA increases, but planning was hindered by uncertainties over how the money could be used and whether it would last past two years.

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‘Our Impoverished View of School Reform’

May 17th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

This week, Columbia’s Teachers College Record reprises one of the most provocative education articles I’ve come across in the past several years – “Our Impoverished View of School Reform,” by David Berliner. It was first published in 2005.

Ordinarily, TCR requires paid registration to access archived articles such as this one. But for this week, access is free. It’s a lengthy article, but worth the effort.

Berliner introduces his theme, “It seems to me that in the rush to improve student achievement through accountability systems relying on high-stakes tests, our policy makers and citizens forgot, or cannot understand, or deliberately avoid the fact, that our children live nested lives.”  By this he means that students spend most of their lives outside school, in families and communities.

He goes on, “Our youth are in classrooms, so when those classrooms do not function as we want them to, we go to work on improving them,” as well as the schools those classrooms are in. But he stresses that “all educational efforts that focus on classrooms and schools, as does NCLB … might well be subverted or minimized by what happens to children outside of school.”

The performance of America’s schools in international comparisons is frequently bemoaned. But Berliner stresses that the United States ranks even worse on other measures of child well-being – 23rd out of 24 “wealthy” nations in the percentage of children living poverty according to UNICEF for example. Only Mexico ranked lower.

As is well-known, poverty in America is highly correlated with race and Berliner illustrates that the ranking of U.S. compared with peers in other countries also correlates with race – white students typically rank closer to the top, while African-American and Hispanic students typically rank near the bottom. Berliner then recites the ways in which poverty hurts prospects for school success – children in poverty are more likely to suffer asthma, low birth-weight, poor nutrition, lead poisoning, and uncorrected vision, hearing, dental, or other health problems

The article – again published in 2005 – foreshadowed policy debates over education in the recent presidential campaign. Two competing agendas vied for attention among Democrats. The “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education Reform” argued for attention to out of school factors affecting students’ success in school. The Educational Equality Project focused on holding schools and educators more accountable for closing achievement gaps, and empowering parents to do so.

Interestingly, Arne Duncan, now the U.S. Education Secretary, was one of the few education leaders to sign on to support both agendas.

The debate will be resurrected in the coming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, or a successor statute to govern most federal education programs.

The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson used to tell audiences of disadvantaged youth, “You’re not responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting up.”

Something similar might be said of educators’ duties – we are not responsible for all the impediments to learning which too many children encounter, but we are responsible for helping the children to overcome them.

Our national affiliate – the American Association of School Administrators – is urging that the reauthorization of the NCLB take a more integrated approach to helping disadvantaged students with both the in- and out-of-school factors impeding their academic achievement.

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Please take SED’s survey on the grades 3-8 testing schedule

May 11th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

A few months back, the State Education Department conducted an online survey on possible changes to the grades 3 through testing schedule for mathematics and English language arts.

Overall participation in the survey was strong — there were over 22,000 participants.  And the overwhelming consensus was that the current schedule (ELA in January; math in March) should be changed.  But how to change the schedule produced no agreement.

So the Board of Regents asked the Department to conduct another survey, narrowing the options for consideration.

Here are the options:

  • Option 1: Administer the English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics (Math) Tests concurrently during the first week of May and score both sets of examinations during the second week of May.
  • Option 2: Keep the administration of the Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests in early March and move the administration of the ELA Tests from January to late March/early April.
  • Option 3: Retain the current testing calendar.

In the last survey only 200 or so superintendents participated, inviting the supposition that the issue might be unimportant to Council members.  We know that is not the case, and that superintendents will be on the front line in the effort of making a new schedule work, and in facing complaints if it doesn’t.

So please take the time now to complete SED’s survey here.

The survey itself explains pluses and minuses of each option.

Here is a letter from SED Senior Deputy Commissioner Johanna Duncan Poitier explaining the new survey.

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School budget votes — reason for worry?

May 11th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

The property tax report cards filed by school districts last month show tax increases in proposed budgets averaging 2.1 percent, down from 3.7 percent a year ago.*  This decline has led some observers to predict another good year for school budget votes.

I’m not so sure.

With elections, I choose to be an “eternal pessimist.”  The outlook has its benefits — I am seldom disappointed and often pleasantly surprised.

So, even though school budgets have passed at rates averaging close to 90 percent over the past six years, I worry about the outcome even under promising circumstances.  But I do see more reasons than usual for concern this year, even with the decline in proposed tax increases.

More than most elections, school votes are influenced by turnout, and statewide turnout in school elections has dropped every year since 2003, the year that the State Education Department first began reporting actual vote counts by districts.

Total turnout has declined by 19 percent since 2003.  “Yes” votes have fallen more than “no” votes — 22 percent versus 14 percent.  But high budget passage rates have continued because the drop in yes votes started from a higher base.  Sixty-two percent of school voters supported their district budgets in 2003; 59 percent did so last May.

In 2007, school budgets achieved a record passage rate of 95.3 percent (The State Education Department has published results going back as far as 1969).  That outcome was not the result of a surge of favorable votes, however.  The yes turnout dropped by roughly 66,000 votes, but no votes declined by roughly 100,000 (24 percent) from the year before.

Nearly all the drop in no votes on school budgets over the past six years occurred in just that one year — 2007.  That was the year the Foundation Aid formula was enacted, along with a record $1.76 billion overall School Aid increase.  The sense was that the big state aid increase helped moderate local tax increases and that gave skeptical voters fewer reasons to show up and vote against their school budgets.

This year’s drop in proposed tax increases might be expected to depress the participation of hostile voters again.  But the general political and economic atmosphere is negative in many ways now.  Surveys reveal voter worries about their own economic prospects and and disapproval of many elected officials.

School budget elections are one immediate outlet for voters to vent their general frustrations.

Last year, 92 percent of school budgets passed.  But a shift in turnout could could drop the pass rate by 10 or 20 percentage points.

If the turnout of yes voters remains at 2008 levels, but no votes rise back up to 2006 levels, the pass rate would drop to 73 percent.  That would require an unprecedented 30 percent surge in no votes.  A 16 percent jump in no votes — as happened in 2005 — would result in a pass rate around 85 percent.

Both scenarios assume no change in the number of yes votes compared to May 2008.  Any fall-off would result in still lower passage rates.

Watching the steady erosion of yes votes, especially upstate, I have worried what would happen if events ever caused a surge in hostile voters.  Pro-school budget forces in some regions may be out of practice in turning out heir supporters.  Also, in this cycle they are more on their own in whatever efforts they do make.

It appears that the teachers union, New York State United Teachers, will not run its usual pro-budget TV and radio ads.  In some districts, local unions are opposing school budgets because of planned layoffs.

Again, when it comes to elections, I’ve been the eternal pessimist over the years and have been pleasantly surprised by the voters’ judgments more often than I’ve been disappointed.

Let’s hope that is the case again next Tuesday.

*The average increase in local tax levies in proposed school budgets for 2009-10 is 2.1 percent, if the figure is calculated by summing budgeted and proposed tax levies for all districts and computing the percentage change between the two annual totals.

Some reports have placed the average at 1.9 percent.  That figure is the result if the percentage changes in tax levy proposed by all districts are averaged together.

The first method gives more weight to districts with larger budgets and tax levies; the second method weights all districts the same regardless of size.

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State leaders meet on property tax relief

May 7th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Yesterday, Governor Paterson convened a public meeting with legislative leaders to discuss property tax relief.  Presumably the Governor’s motives were two-fold:  to accomplish something and to continue efforts at resuscitating his prospects with voters.

The Governor and the four leaders (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos) mostly reiterated past positions on property tax caps, mandate, relief, and circuit-breakers.

The Governor and Senator Skelos re-stated their support for a property tax cap.

Speaker Silver cautioned that cutting school taxes shouldn’t come at the expense of children attending schools that are underfunded now. He also expressed support for a proposal by State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to promote local government consolidation (Mr. Cuomo’s bill does not address school districts).

Senator Smith said that his Democratic conference would begin introducing mandate relief bills next week.  They have begun moving some bills through committee already.

As one would expect, this initial meeting produced no substantive agreements but the leaders appeared to  agree to reconvene in two weeks and to have relevant committee chairs present perspectives and proposals. They also raised the prospect that a conference committee of Legislators will be convened to attempt to negotiate agreement on action steps.

Immediately after the meeting, Nassau County Executive and State Property Tax relief Commission Chair Thomas Suozzi held a conference call with statewide reporters. He revealed a letter he had sent to superintendents commending them on holding proposed school tax increases to a “lower than average” 2.1 percent and asking them to respond to questions concerning factors affecting expense growth and actions the state could take to have a positive impact on their budgets.

The Council issued a statement emphasizing the success in holding down proposed tax increases, despite the freeze on Foundation Aid in this year’s state budget.

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MTA rescue plan passes with payroll tax

May 7th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Last night both houses of the Legislature gave their approval to a financial rescue plan for the New York City area Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It will be signed by the Governor.

The plan includes a .34 percent payroll tax to be paid by employers in the MTA region, including school districts. The MTA region consists of New York City and Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange Counties.

The payroll taxes for most employers will be retroactive to March 1, while school districts will not be required to begin paying until September.

The bill provides for state reimbursement to school districts of 100 percent of their payroll tax payments. The reimbursement is to be paid to school districts on or after June 1st for all their payments up through May 1st.  With the payment coming after April, 1, this timing puts the payment in the following year’s state budget.

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Commissioner Mills reflects on where we are and where we must go in education

May 5th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Yesterday, outgoing State Education Commissioner Richard Mills gave a sort of valedictory address describing accomplishments of the education system under his tenure and sharing reflections on its future challenges and opportunities.

The Commissioner delivered his remarks at an event convened by the State University’s Rockefeller Institute of Government.  You can watch the hour-long speech and Q&A session here.

He highlighted the Foundation Aid formula enacted two years ago as “probably the most powerful policy decision that was made in the last decade” but warned that the achievement is in jeopardy of being lost due to the planned two-year freeze on the formula.

The Commissioner also discussed New York’s plans and prospects for gaining a share of the the new $5 billion federal “race to the Top” fund.  Gannett’s Albany blog reported

Getting in the program will require a commitment to state-led national standards in English and math, the commissioner said. New York led the nation in creating high academic standards, which are now a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. New York is interested in partnering with other high-performing states that have had similar success in closing achievement gaps between wealthy and poor districts. Mills said he and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have been talking with a few of the strongest states.

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