Few districts apply for Cuomo’s competitive education grants

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. (Spencer T. Tucker/nyc mayor's office)
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ALBANY—Gov. Andrew Cuomo is offering schools millions of dollars for academic initiatives that are overwhelmingly supported by education experts, and for the second time, districts aren't interested in the money.

The vast majority of eligible school districts didn't apply for Cuomo's $75 million competitive grants this year, which would fund the creation of full-day pre-kindergarten, extend the school day or year, create “community schools,” where at-risk students can get health care, counseling and other services, and reward high-performing teachers in high-need districts.

Experts offered a variety of explanations for why participation in Cuomo's programs is so low, after a first round of grants also drew a relative few applications. Mainly, schools don't want to build programs they'll have to dismantle when grants expire, leaders said.

“One of the things that school districts want to know, particularly in an uncomfortable economic environment, is whether or not those dollars will be sustainable,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said after a meeting in Albany last week. “Can I afford to create a program that might be funded for only two or three years?”

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The grant period for extended learning time and community schools is three years each, according to the state’s request for proposals. The pre-K grant initially covers seven months, from December to June, and it can be renewed annually if schools hit certain performance targets.

Schools endured state-spending cuts or flat funding for several years until Cuomo began increasing funding; total state aid to schools this fiscal year was $21.1 billion, including the grants, which was an increase of about $1 billion from the previous year. Schools are still grappling with soaring pension costs, though, and their ability to raise revenue is limited by a statewide property-tax cap.

Their financial struggles make them wary to take on more obligations, even with grant money, experts said.

Ninety school districts applied for the pre-K grant out of the 366 that were eligible, according to updated numbers the state has provided since Capital first reported the low participation rate last month.

With fewer than a quarter of districts applying, that program attracted the most interest.

About 19 percent of eligible districts applied for the community schools grant, 69 of 366.

The grant that would cover the cost of extending the school day or year by 25 percent was offered to all of New York's school districts, but it generated the least interest. Only 25 out of 674 districts, or about 4 percent, applied.

And Cuomo's “master teacher” program, which provides high-performing teachers with a $60,000 stipend over four years, solicited 317 applications in its first round. The state doesn't have a solid number on how many teachers were eligible, but the first round was open to middle- and high-school math and science teachers with more than four years of experience who live in one of four regions of the state: central and western New York, the mid-Hudson Valley and the North Country.

Cuomo and SUNY, who partnered on the project, planned to choose 250 teachers for the first round but only awarded the incentive to 105. Teachers in all regions of the state are eligible to apply now for a second round, and the state is offering 561 spots.

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi touted the grants in a statement, calling the response “very strong.”

“These grants are a key part of this administration’s efforts to inject rigor, innovation and merit into an education system where there had previously been no relationship between funding levels and academic achievement,” Azzopardi said. “The response to these programs has been very strong with a full third of eligible districts applying to take part in our community school or full-day Pre-Kindergarten programs.

“While there are those who resist any change to the status quo, we anticipate that interest will only grow moving forward,” he finished.

Education Commissioner John King, who is elected by the Board of Regents, rather than being appointed by the governor, also refuted that participation in the grant programs has been lacking. But he argued the state should fund the programs for more students.

“There does seem to be quite a lot of interest for these activities,” he said after a Regents meeting in Albany last week. “I think the question for the budget process going forward is where there are activities that we think are important for all students, are there ways that we can leverage the state's resources to support them for all high-needs communities?”

King said he advocates using competitive grants for piloting innovative programs like Brooklyn’s P-TECH, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which was touted by President Barack Obama when he visited New York City last month.

“And then when we have initiatives that we believe would be beneficial to all high-needs students, like early-childhood, we should find a way to make a structured investment that's available to all the communities in need,” he said.

Last year, the Board of Regents asked the state to provide $75 million for full-day pre-K statewide; Cuomo's grant is for up to $25 million. King said they will likely propose a similar investment in early childhood for this year’s budget.

Tisch echoed King’s argument for funding pre-K across the state but thanked Cuomo for “being creative in trying to develop new pots of money.”

King also said poorer districts often lack resources to develop grant applications, which is why the education department often offers grants on a regional basis, so districts’ local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, known as BOCES, can write grant proposals on behalf of multiple districts.

Wealthier districts, on the other hand, sometimes don’t apply, because they’re sure they won’t qualify for grants that prioritize high need, he said.

But again, schools are most worried about starting programs and hiring staff they won’t be able to maintain.

“There is a fear out there, and it's understandable on the part of school districts, that … when the grant comes to an end, there will be pressure for them to continue the work, and they clearly don’t have the resources to do that,” said Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers. “I think that is a major player in the discussion about why they back off.”

David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association, said his members are also concerned about sustainability, especially when schools are already struggling to balance their budgets.

While most districts would want to add full-day pre-K, some are considering cutting kindergarten to a half-day program or eliminating it altogether to save money, Albert said. So establishing pre-K seems out of the question.

Albert also said he’s not surprised the extended learning time grant solicited the fewest proposals, because it’s the most complicated to implement.

Not only would districts have to renegotiate union contracts with local bargaining units, they would face changing the whole culture of the school community by adjusting schedules. A longer school day or year would affect families, athletics, transportation, among other aspects of life.

“Even though the state was going to pick up the full cost, there is still working out the details at the local level and determining who is going to staff it and at what cost,” Albert said.

Assembly Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan, a Democrat from Queens, said school districts have been overextended dealing with the implementation of the rigorous Common Core standards.

“The competitive grants might have gotten a little bit lost,” she said.

Nolan said she prefers distributing education funds through the state’s funding formulas, which prioritize need, but she’d like to see Cuomo’s grant program continue to see if interest grows with time.

“Sometimes starting things a little bit slower is not the worst thing in the world,” she said. “Ramping it up gradually helps you work out the kinks.”