Big education questions in budget talks

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The budget. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—In New York, the state budget is often more than just a spending plan: This year the complex package will also map out significant changes to education policy.

In an election year for Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers, and following the election of New York City's first new mayor in more than a decade, the politics are as significant and complex as the policy questions when it comes to funding pre-kindergarten, the fate of charter schools and New York City's mayoral control and the controversial implementation of the Common Core standards.

"While some of them may be discrete individual issues, none of them are going to be negotiated discretely,” said Steven Greenberg, a political pollster for the Siena College Research Institute. “All of these education issues are going to merge together as part of the negotiations.”

While it seems that de Blasio's proposal for a local tax increase to fund pre-K is effectively dead in Albany, there is no clearer alternative answer to how to fund the program, a question that has created a political rift between upstate and downstate leaders and will be central to budget negotiations. Cuomo and pro-charter senators will attempt to strip away some of the mayor's control over schools, while Assembly Democrats will attempt to block any changes that will be helpful to charters, which they see as an attack on traditional public schools.

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Changes to implementation of the Common Core standards, such as banning early-grade standardized testing, will likely get looped into the budget as well. But there, the major battle will be over changes to the teacher-evaluation system.

Here are some of the education questions to be answered in budget talks in the coming days.

How will pre-kindergarten be paid for?

The Assembly included de Blasio's tax-the-rich proposal to fund pre-K in the five boroughs in its one-house budget resolution last week, but Speaker Sheldon Silver said he could live without the tax, as long as the budget includes enough money for the program.

Enter the Senate, which proposed $340 million for pre-K in the city, as well as $145 million for the rest of the state. The Senate's proposal is a whole lot more than Cuomo's proposed $100 million for the whole state, but the governor reiterated in a statement last Thursday that he'd fund any pre-K programs that were ready to get off the ground. This puts the de Blasio administration in a position to call the governor's bluff, unless of course it's the city that's bluffing about how fast it can get its programs ready to go.

Without de Blasio's tax, the Senate's proposed pre-K figure is likely a starting point for negotiations. But anything less than the $340 million that de Blasio is seeking for New York City will fall short of the demands of many education advocates and the teachers' unions, which de Blasio mobilized in the fight for pre-K.

In addition to the obvious political battle between Cuomo and de Blasio, the issue of funding pre-K has also exacerbated long-held upstate-downstate tensions. Advocates accused the Senate of favoring New York City in its one-house budget resolution, which creates separates pots of pre-K money for the city and the rest of the state. Typically, one sum of school aid is distributed across school districts using complex funding formulas.

There's also disagreement as to whether schools should be required to use the funding for pre-K or whether struggling schools should be granted flexibility to use it for kindergarten or to mitigate state budget cuts.

Assembly Democrats have stressed that they won't accept a plan that doesn't have a stable funding stream, and it seems unclear to most how exactly the Senate found the money in its one-house budget to fund pre-K next fiscal year, let alone in out years.

Will mayoral control be stripped to 'save' charters?

Another fight awaits on the issue of charter schools. Cuomo came out strong for charters, in response to pleas from Success Academy head Eva Moskowitz, pledging to “save” them, and the Senate was the first to quantify what that will take: increased tuition rates that would be paid from traditional public schools to charters, a moratorium on charging rent for space, access to facilities funding and the ability to offer pre-K. The proposal would establish the principle that mayoral control of schools in New York City is contingent on the state agreeing with what the mayor does. Which is to say the mayor wouldn't have full control anymore. 

Assembly Democrats called the push against mayoral control like it is: an attempt to target de Blasio specifically because of his stance on charters (which is a far cry from his predecessor's). The Assembly would likely only surrender on charters if offered something else in return, such as more money for pre-K or changes to the Common Core rollout.

Unions and advocates describe the push as an attack on traditional public school education. Silver has said that the capital funding that the Senate has proposed to help charters secure facilities would be better used to finance classroom space for New York City students who take classes in trailers because schools are at capacity.

Assembly Higher Education Committee chair Deborah Glick said Cuomo and Senate Republicans didn't try to limit mayoral control when Michael Bloomberg, a charter school proponent, was in office.

“For a decade, the mayor of New York has had mayoral control, and nobody on the governor’s staff or on the Senate side was complaining about the control that was exerted by the mayor,” Glick said. “Many of us in the Assembly were very deeply concerned about the way in which Mayor Bloomberg proceeded.

"We are more comfortable with Mayor de Blasio and for the first time in years ... we actually have an educator [as schools chancellor]," Glick continued. "We would like to give them the opportunity to do their job.”

At a press conference Monday, Cuomo reiterated his commitment to charters: “I'm going to make sure the charter school movement can continue and grow and has that support in every city in the state,” he said.

What will a Common Core compromise look like?

Another contentious issue, the rollout of the Common Core standards, will likely get rolled into the budget debate, leaders have said. (Proposals that have little or nothing to do with spending are often included in the budget, allowing the various parties more leverage in negotiations.)

A panel formed by Cuomo proposed many of the same changes to the Common Core that have been endorsed by the State Board of Regents and the Assembly, and there are areas where it's likely the Senate will agree, as well: lowering stakes of testing for students, banning standardized testing altogether in early grades and taking steps to protect student data. But Cuomo is unlikely to budge on a teacher- and principal-evaluation system he championed, while leaders in both houses of the Legislature are seeking changes.

Cuomo has also said the Board of Regents needs an overhaul, charging the board with having “utterly failed” Common Core implementation.

The Senate passed a bill last week that would change the way Regents are selected, giving most appointments to the governor.

State Senate education chair John Flanagan said the Regents election process “can and will be part of the discussion” during budget negotiations. But Glick, whose conference holds the power in the current election system, said the proposal is a “nonstarter.”

Nolan said the Assembly already passed its bill reforming Common Core implementation and is now focused on pre-K.

“People try to add a lot of things to the budget,” she said. “In all honesty, some of it could easily be post-budget.”