Press-Republican

March 17, 2014

Common Core, state aid complicate budgets

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — SARANAC LAKE — Issues with education reform are adding pitch to outcry against state school-aid cuts.

Part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive spending plan looks to connect school aid to teacher evaluations, which are currently pulled, in part, from test scores captured in the Common Core curriculum.

Cuomo is looking to thread education finance reform through that system.

His budget preview looked forward to the “establishment of an annual professional performance review system (APPR) ... that links state aid increases to school district implementation of the APPR.”

But the review system is in flux, challenged by the testing core.

CHANGES URGED

A panel of 11 experts has recommended numerous changes to Common Core, altering the way the State Education Department will roll out measurable education reform.

The panel suggested students be held harmless by “high-stakes” assessment tests, keeping scores out of permanent records and away from grade-promotion decisions.

The panel recommended giving teachers more time to build Common Core modules into their classrooms before testing measures are put in place.

EVALUATIONS

Some of the recommendations mirrored legislation put in motion months ago by Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru), but she noticed a catch in protections offered from the test scores.

“It is interesting to me that the panel and the governor support ‘protecting students from high stakes (scores) based on unfair test results,’ which is clearly the appropriate action to take. 

“However, the panel and the governor appear to believe teachers should still be evaluated on the performance of their students, who are not expected to do well on these same ‘unfair tests,’ and this is clearly not an appropriate action. 

“I’ve not talked to a single teacher who was opposed to a fair and honest evaluation, but the evaluations should not be based on poor scores when proper preparation is just not available to the teachers,” Duprey said.

SHARING INFORMATION

She also co-sponsored legislation to end the State Education Department contract with inBloom, a $50 million agreement funded with federal education money

driving Common Core.

She was pleased that the panel also recommended ending the relationship with inBloom.

“Parents simply do not want their children’s private and personal information shared,” Duprey said via email.

The panel did maintain, however, that data and the ability to measure performance remain central to education reform. 

Toward that end, Cuomo is pursuing performance-based incentive in his budget with grant programs, such as Teachers of Tomorrow and Employment Preparation Education, among others.

Cuomo’s  budget also extends $2 billion in a Smart Schools bond act and $1.5 billion over five years to implement statewide universal, full-day prekindergarten, in keeping with federal Common Core standards.

FIRST STEP

But Duprey sees education reform via Common Core as an unfinished work in progress, not stable enough yet to use as performance measures.

“I think the report of the panel is a first step in what will be a longer process of revamping the Common Core,” she said.

“And I hope that all of the stakeholders, especially the parents, continue to stay intensely involved in the discussions going forward.”

LOCAL GAP LOSSES

Meantime, school aid remains subject to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, an “emergency” move started four years ago to close a $10 billion state budget deficit.

Clinton County schools have lost $66.8 million in school aid since; Essex County schools, $14.4 million; and Franklin County schools, $31.2 million, according to data from the North Country Alliance for Public Education.

Cuomo’s budget restores up to 45 percent of state aid to some schools. 

But district officials here are saying Gap Elimination cuts are too deep, especially compounded as they are by the 2 percent tax-levy cap, which went into effect in 2012 — after Gap Elimination began.

School officials say state-aid cuts hamper their efforts to adequately implement performance review and blend Common Core reform, let alone coordinating pre-K programs.

Schools are looking, instead, to cut athletic and music programs next year just to make ends meet.

TAX FREEZE

In his budget, Cuomo  also looks to enact a 2-year property-tax freeze, a move some say would completely hamstring school budgets.

The Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition of parents and educators, launched a protest in Albany, delivering petitions to the governor’s office.

“The tax freeze would compound the jeopardy the (2 percent) tax cap already creates for schools,” the alliance said in a statement.

“The (governor’s) new proposal would promise voter rebates, delivering the equivalent of a property-tax freeze, but only if they oppose any school budget seeking a tax increase above the cap.”

ALTERNATIVE VERSIONS

Cuomo’s executive budget is being metered now by spending plans from both the Senate and the Assembly.

The Assembly version looks to add back $402 million in state funding for schools and rejects Cuomo’s move to freeze property taxes, opting instead for “circuit breaker” property-tax relief measures based on need. 

The Senate is expected to propose an end to Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts over a two-year period.

Lawmakers have limited time to reconcile three spending plans to produce a state budget by March 31.

Email Kim Smith Dedam:kdedam@pressrepublican.com