On February 9, Government Relations Committee (GRC) members from across New York State convened in Albany for an ambitious day of meetings with legislators, the governor’s office, and with the State Education Department.
All GRC members met with Jere Hochman, the governor’s deputy secretary for education, and members of his staff. The GRC also disbursed into five teams of school administrators that met with 17 legislators and/or their staff including:
• Assembly Member Carl Heastie, Assembly Speaker
• Senator John Flanagan, Senate Majority Leader
• Assembly Member Joseph Morelle, Assembly Majority Leader
• Senator Carl Marcellino, Chairperson of Senate Education Committee
• Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, Chairperson of Assembly Education Committee
The meetings focused on four issues, with the first and foremost issue being state school aid. The $991 million increase proposed by Governor Cuomo is less than half of the $2.2 billion increase recommended by SAANYS to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment and meaningfully advance implementation of the Foundation Aid Formula. In fact, the governor’s proposal would result in a state aid decrease for many school districts, which will be exacerbated by a .012 percent tax cap (in some school districts the tax cap will be zero (0 percent)). School administrators told their stories as to how the governor’s proposal would impact their respective schools and districts. In many of the meetings, discussions extended to the need for categorical aid to better meet the needs of English language learners and to implement new, unfunded requirements included in Part 154 of commissioner’s regulations; as well as the need for current year emergency aid to school districts that experience “student surges” that could not have been known or planned for in school budgets.
The second item discussed was the need for funding and accountability adjustments for Persistently Struggling Schools that received targeted state aid allocations in mid-January 2016, rather than in July 2015; and furthermore recommended $75 million for allocation to Struggling Schools in order to avoid adverse impact upon other schools. In fact, it was pointed out that the 17 districts in which these Struggling and Persistently Struggling Schools are located should be prioritized for the receipt of the $2.7 billion that they are owed in Foundation Aid. Finally, in recognition of the fact that there are no simple, quick solutions for school improvement, it was recommended that these schools be allowed at least five years within which to post demonstrable improvement.
Third, in regard to prekindergarten programs, GRC members recommended that the six current prekindergarten programs be amalgamated into a single cohesive program with sustainable funding, and recommended against the establishment of a new Empire State Prekindergarten Grant Board that would add to state overhead and bureaucracy and further fragment the prekindergarten system. Furthermore, in light of prekindergarten services being available to approximately 60 percent of children who are four years of age, GRC members said it is premature to direct $22 million for the provision of services to children three years of age. Moreover, prekindergarten is inequitably available to four year old children on a region-to-region basis. The following chart depicts an access gap of 52 percent:
The last item discussed at these meetings was the annual professional performance review (APPR) system. It had come to the attention of SAANYS that some members of the state legislature believe that any problems with the APPR system have been corrected through the recommendations of the Common Core Task Force and the regulations enacted by the state Board of Regents. GRC members pointed out those actions did not fix the system, but rather put in place an imperfect patch of the state evaluation system. It was recommended that appropriate entities, such as SAANYS, continue to be engaged to determine what works and what does not work so that thoughtful and necessary revisions of statute and regulation may be implemented, including provisions related to state-developed growth scores, the student performance- educator observation matrix, and the independent observer requirements.
The meeting with Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and members of her leadership team provided the opportunity to again discuss SED’s actions and roles in connection with the Struggling Schools and APPR systems. In addition, GRC members discussed the requirements and opportunities associated with the recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law is expected to be rolled-out over a two-year period, with 2016-17 depicted as a “soft start” that will be very similar to 2015-16. For example, the consolidated application is expected to contain few or no changes compared to the template used for the current year. The commissioner described her intentions to develop the next state accountability plan by engaging appropriate stakeholders in a thoughtful manner saying, “Doing something fast doesn’t get you where you want to be.”
In regard to student testing, the commissioner pointed out that the 95 percent participation requirement remains in place under ESSA and must be addressed in the state’s accountability plan. In an effort to drive down the incidence of students opting out, the following actions will be taken during this school year for the state assessments in grades 3 to 8:
• The State Education Department has entered into a contract with a new vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc.
• The Pearson test items will be reviewed by educators to ensure their appropriateness.
• The tests will include fewer questions and will be shorter.
• Students will be permitted to continue to work on the tests as long as they are productive.
• Up to 60 percent of test items will be released.
The commissioner also indicated her intention to apply to become one of seven states to be approved by the US Department of Education to implement innovative student evaluation procedures, such as project based assessment and portfolios. SAANYS indicated that this will be included as an agenda item when meeting with members of New York State’s federal delegation in Washington D.C. on March 15. n