February 27, 2007

Testimony on PreK-12 Education 2007

Source: NYSUT Division of Legislation

Testimony of Alan B. Lubin, Executive Vice President, New York State United Teachers, to the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Owen Johnson, Chair, and Assembly Ways and Means Committee Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, Chair, on the Executive Budget Proposal

February 27, 2007


Good afternoon Chairman Johnson, Chairman Farrell, and honorable members of the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

I am Alan Lubin, Executive Vice President of the New York State United Teachers.

NYSUT is a statewide union representing more than 575,000 members. Our members are pre-k to 12th grade teachers, school related professionals, higher education faculty, and other professionals in education and health care.

I thank you for the opportunity to address you today regarding the Executive Budget for FY 2007-08.

But first, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Legislature for providing last year's record increase in funding for education, additional capital funding for the state's high needs schools and having the courage to override the Governor's vetoes to sustain critical investments in education.

My budget testimony will broadly outline NYSUT's comments on the Executive Budget proposal for public education. As always, in the days ahead, our members and staff will be meeting with you and your staff to expand on these comments and seek your help in addressing them.

Foundation Formula

I want to start by applauding the Governor for his courage and bold leadership in proposing historic school finance reform that finally seeks to fulfill the state's moral and legal obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every public school child in the state. Moreover, we gratefully acknowledge that the Governor refused to take the easy way out and his proposal goes well beyond minimal court compliance and aims for educational excellence for all public schools across the state.

This unprecedented $7 billion commitment to public education to be phased in over the next four years is the right direction for the state. These resources will be used to reduce class sizes, improve teacher quality, finally provide Universal Pre-kindergarten, and give our children a true opportunity to succeed. Providing resources fairly to public schools across the state, with an extra commitment in areas of high need, is the right direction for children and taxpayers.

Rather than handing out money and hoping that it winds up in the classroom, the Governor wisely proposed that substantial increases in aid be tied to strategies and programs with a track record of improving student achievement. These approved uses include: class size reduction, teacher quality, middle and high school restructuring and full day kindergarten. This accountability for how real dollar investments in schools are spent is essential.

The Foundation Formula proposed by the Governor captures a remarkably broad consensus among education stake holders that state aid allocations should:

  • fund the actual costs of an adequate education,

  • provide appropriate weightings that reflect the added expense of educating disadvantaged and special needs students,

  • adjust for regional variation in the cost of education,

  • eexpect a reasonable local contribution tied to the wealth and needs of a district.

Additionally, the Governor's Foundation Formula avoids a Robin Hood approach by assuring a minimum three percent increase to all districts and protecting total dollar save harmless. Finally, the proposed Foundation Formula protects the real dollar value of state aid by including a CPI inflation adjustment. This straight forward, fair and predictable approach to state aid would replace the inequitable and bewildering array of Byzantine allocations that hardly anyone understands. It would finally provide the stability and resource adequacy that districts need to plan and implement lasting reform strategies.

No finance formula can account for every compelling local circumstance in a state as complex as New York with close to 700 separate districts. To be sure, there are a few anomalous results that should be addressed during budget deliberations. However, the framework of the Governor's Foundation Formula gives school districts the best opportunity they have to provide the resources every student needs to succeed. Furthermore, the four year phase-in will allow for local district planning and create a predictable funding stream which schools can depend upon.

The litigation surrounding Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) began 14 years ago. An entire generation of high needs students have come and gone without their needs being met. We urge you to join with the Governor in enacting a real solution for CFE - we cannot afford to fail another generation and we must not squander this unparalleled opportunity to transform our state aid system.

Planning, Accountability and Standards

In addition to this record investment in our public education system and school aid reform to provide fairness and transparency, the Executive Budget goes on to propose stringent accountability measures to ensure that this investment is spent wisely on proven methods of helping our students learn, and holds adults responsible for the success of our children. We welcome greater accountability in return for adequate funding.

As that famous education philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: "If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there." If we don't develop opportunity to learn standards for all children, tied to school improvement planning involving teachers and administrators, we will not achieve the high standards we aspire to.

We applaud the Executive for proposing that significant resources be tied to proven strategies but more needs to be done. Superintendents and school boards should be held accountable for improving student achievement, and we support the Governor's approach, provided that the proper tools and resources are made available to every classroom.

That means appropriate class sizes, a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, challenging curriculum, adequate textbooks, supplies and equipment, science labs and technology and a safe and orderly learning environment.

Unfortunately, New York State lacks meaningful resource standards. Accountability should be a two way street between the state and school districts. Educators should be held accountable for teaching and learning and the state should be accountable for ensuring that schools have the proper staffing and resources necessary to teach to high standards. The lack of such shared accountability and resource standards is what has led to the shameful inequities where average 9th grade math class size in New York City is 33 students versus an average of 20 in the rest of the state.

Of concern to us would be a system that would use raw data as a tool to punish teachers, especially our youngest teachers and those who serve in the most challenging school settings. The effectiveness of a teacher should not be based on inappropriate use of test data, but should include qualitative standards such as a teacher's use of data to improve class performance, and their classroom preparation and management, which are all keys to the overall practice of teaching. This hands-on knowledge from a practicing teacher will be priceless in developing any plan to achieve improvement in our schools and to establish the standards by which such improvement will be assessed. Teachers welcome this responsibility and are eager to participate in this process.

Grants

Although NYSUT supports consolidation of most of the competing and contradictory aid categories, we believe that certain critical programs warrant continuation on a categorical basis.

We believe that magnet school grants should be continued as a vehicle for supporting real public school choice that promotes diversity and reduces racial isolation. In the capital region, magnet schools have often led school districts in student achievement while providing parents dissatisfied with neighborhood schools another option. And, unlike charter schools, magnet schools enroll proportionate numbers of English language learners, special education students and never return students they wish to be rid of to neighborhood schools.

NYSUT is also concerned about the consolidation of Teacher Support Aid (TSA) within the foundation formula. TSA was established to support competitive salaries in the Big Five School districts. The loss of these monies could result in the loss of teacher pay in certain school districts.

We also believe that we must provide financial incentives for schools to provide alternative educational placements for violent or disruptive students. In too many instances disruptive students are returned to the same classroom undermining the authority of the teacher and depriving other students of an opportunity to learn. Suspending students without providing services does nothing to change the behavior. We need quality alternative placements where a student can get the intense intervention that they need in order to return to a mainstream classroom.

Charter Schools and Private Tuition Tax Deductions

We do have some serious concerns about other proposals in the Executive Budget that we consider bad public policy, such as a private-school tuition/voucher proposal and an ill-conceived increase in the charter school cap. Both would be detours from real reform.

The Executive proposal to increase the charter school cap by 150 schools without reforming the deeply flawed process or protecting school districts from further financial damage is ill-conceived and bad policy for the state.

After eight years of experimentation by the state, there is ample evidence that the charter process is deeply flawed and the results disappointing. Simply put, charter schools, in general, have significantly underperformed public schools serving comparable students. Furthermore, the chartering process has damaged urban school districts by diverting resources from under-resourced schools, driving up local property taxes without the consent of local residents and wreaking havoc on the planning and operations of affected school districts.

Charter schools show a troubling pattern of significant under-enrollment of special education students and English language learners, as well as low-income students, contrary to the intent of the state's Charter School Law that all children be served equitably.

Charter schools should not be expanded until legislation is enacted to change the way these schools are authorized, held accountable and funded. Furthermore, the state should conduct a comprehensive study to assess the academic performance of charter schools as well as their fiscal impact on school districts. The state should not further erode the Regents' authority to hold schools accountable by granting the New York City schools' Chancellor chartering authority.

The Governor proposes $15 million in transition aid to five effected school districts. These proposed grants will hardly make a dent in the financial impact that these charter schools have had on these host districts. To illustrate how insufficient this proposal is, let me tell you a little about how this proposal would impact the local district of Albany. Under Governor Spitzer's proposal Albany is slated to receive a $2.5 million transition grant in 2007-08 which will be phased out over three years. Albany's charter school payment in 2007-08 will be $20.8 million. Their transition grant barely covers 10% of the financial impact on the district. Albany's charter payment increase in 2007-08 will be $5.7 million which means their transition grant won't even cover half of the cost increase this year. Not only that, but the charter payment increase eats up much of the funding the district is set to receive as part of the proposed CFE remedy or Foundation Aid. During this legislative session, NYSUT will support comprehensive reforms that will address the true financial impact charter schools have had on school districts.

Also, the Governor proposes that school districts be notified by March 15th of the year that a proposed charter school is to open. NYSUT has previously proposed an 18 month notification. The March 15th deadline provides roughly only two months before the school district budget vote and districts' proposed budget documents have to be put together in March or April. This notification provision is not at all helpful to districts who are trying to plan for the coming school year.

This session, NYSUT will also support instituting a cap on the creation of charter schools within a school district that is losing 5% of its enrollment or 5% of its budget to charter schools, whichever level is reached first. This proposal would include a moratorium on the expansion of currently approved schools if the district is already over-saturated with charter schools. Educational research indicates that the transfer of 10% of a school district's student body through either vouchers or charters will create debilitating circumstances for a school district.

NYSUT strongly opposes the Executive's proposal for an education tax deduction/voucher. This is nothing but a warmed over variation of school vouchers. This ill-conceived proposal will take us down the road toward diverting resources away from public schools in order to fund private sectarian schools that are unaccountable to the public and are often discriminatory in their admission practices. Worse it could lead to the subsidy of sectarian schools that practice intolerance and whose policies are antithetical to our pluralistic democratic values.

We do have several constitutionally permissible ways to help every child in New York State. NYSUT continues to support the state aid that non public school children already receive. By law, the state has to provide private school children with the same school health services and welfare services that children in public schools receive. Public schools are also required to provide transportation to non-public school students. Private school parents can also access the public school for educational services for the gifted, for career education, special education and other related services. Private schools can be reimbursed partial costs for providing students with breakfast, lunch and milk. Boards of education are required by law to loan text books, school library materials and computer software to non-public school children.

In this budget, the Governor also proposes expansion of access to Hardware Aid for non-public schools in the form of loaned computers. It is unfortunate that the state hasn't provided computers for all students in our public schools. While we support this proposal in theory, the practical effect of the change will leave local districts with the responsibility of picking up an unfunded "local share" of hardware costs at private schools. School districts and local taxpayers where private school pupils reside will be forced to pick up these additional costs as well as administer the computer loan program. A preferable way to approach this effort would be to increase funding for a program such as the Learning Technology Grants or to offer interchangeability within the existing instructional materials programs.

Teacher Centers and Teacher Mentor Intern

As we continue the discussion of how we can provide our kids with everything they need to excel and start to show overall improvement in all of our schools, it is also important to provide those who will teach these students with the necessary support to ensure their success. I am pleased to report that two critical teacher programs: Teacher Centers and the Teacher-Mentor Intern Program were fully funded at $37 million and $6 million respectively. These vital programs are an immeasurable resource to all teachers and contribute to the growth and maturity of less experienced teachers. This legislature has been a strong supporter of these programs in past years when they have faced massive cuts in their funding, and I thank you for that. However, there is so much more good work that can be done with your continued support of these vital teacher development programs.

As funding for the teacher mentor intern program has been flat for a number of years, I also come to you this year to ask for increased support for these two valuable programs. With additional funding we can recruit, train and - most importantly - retain quality instructional staff.

Conclusion

The profound changes in our economy and the complicated challenges confronting our nation and world today, such as global warming, can only be tackled by a highly educated and scientifically adept citizenry. The globalization of our economy will be utterly unforgiving to the undereducated and unskilled.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to transform our educational system by guaranteeing every school the resources it needs to provide an excellent education to every child. As a matter of principle, we need to redeem the promise of a great public school for every child in this state. NYSUT members enthusiastically embrace the promise of an unprecedented investment in educational excellence, as well as the challenge of planning wisely and holding schools accountable for results.

As my favorite education philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"

23039