February 02, 2010

Testimony: Proposed Budget for K-12 Education

Source: NYSUT Legislative Department
pallotta

Exec. VP Andrew Pallotta

Testimony of Andrew Pallotta, Executive Vice President, New York State United Teachers, to the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Kruger and Chairman Farrell, on the Education Budget for Elementary and Secondary Education

February 2, 2010

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

I am Andrew Pallotta, Executive Vice President of the New York State United Teachers.

NYSUT is a statewide union representing more than 600,000 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 2010-11.

My 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.

School Aid

NYSUT believes that, particularly in these troubling economic times, investing in education makes both good fiscal sense and good public policy. Funding targeted to quality public schools will see the greatest return on taxpayer money and will strengthen the entire economy.

Thanks to our congressional delegation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided the funding to restore a substantial amount of last year's proposed cuts. Initial reporting from states is that at least 250,000 education jobs have been created or saved across the nation thanks to the Economic Recovery Plan-18,600 of these jobs are in New York state. This plan is supporting our students and fueling our economy. Despite the economic situation, we can and must move forward in our drive to put in place funding that provides all students with the opportunity for their constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education.

The Governor's budget includes an overall reduction in School Aid of $1.1 billion year to year. Operating aids are reduced by a $1.4 billion Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). This amounts to a 7.5 percent cut in operating aids for schools. This funding level is $4.2 billion below the levels promised under the CFE decision. The massive cuts proposed for education would force schools to cut additional teachers and programs - last year we lost over 5,000 teachers and other school staff statewide. These cuts would inevitably erode most of the good that was accomplished by the federal aid devoted to education last year. Thousands of additional school staff would be laid off that had been saved last year by the ARRA. In fact, the magnitude of the Executive's proposed cut is roughly equal to the entire $1.2 billion ARRA appropriation for school aid adopted by the legislature last spring for the current 2009-10 school year.

In 2007, the Legislature enacted school funding reforms to satisfy the requirements of the CFE case and made a historic commitment to fund education fully over a four year period. Adding resources fairly to public schools across the state, with an extra commitment in areas of high need, was and continues to be the right priority for both children and taxpayers. The proposed cuts are on top of an already broken promise to our schoolchildren. While we understand the tough fiscal times the state and our nation are experiencing – keeping the promise to our school children is the right choice for our state.

The four year phase in of increased school aid was intended to allow for local district planning and to create a predictable funding stream which schools could depend upon. We know that this financial commitment was made in good faith, but last year the phase-in was delayed from four to seven years, and now the Governor is proposing a further extension to 10 years. And this year, with the Governor's proposed cuts, we'd be $4.2 billion behind in keeping that commitment. Each year that Foundation Aid is frozen, school districts that are highly dependent on State Aid get further behind.

The Executive budget leaves school districts in the unenviable position of either proposing double-digit property tax increases, or eliminating the programs and teachers that New York's children need. President Obama has said before that our nation must "educate our way to a better economy" and we couldn't agree more. Unless our children graduate from high school ready to take on the challenges of the future, we may never get out of this economic crisis.

The next generation of New York's workers must come from New York public schools and universities. Employers are going to demand it, and state policymakers must ensure that New York's education system can meet that demand. Promising a knowledge economy without an investment in knowledge is a hollow promise.

While we face difficult options in the current crisis, most economists agree the worst thing a state can do in a severe recession is cut spending, because that decreases aggregate demand and weakens the overall economy.

We ask that you restore the Governor's cuts, restart the Foundation formula and minimally provide the level of resources for our schools adopted in the 2010-11 Regents proposal, a $469 million year to year increase.

What Would These Cuts Mean In Our Schools?

In the Wyandanch school district on Long Island - which would lose almost $1 million under the governor's proposal - teacher layoffs, as well as the elimination of AP courses, summer school, sports teams and bus rides are all possibilities. Such cuts would be especially devastating given that due to budget constraints last spring, Wyandanch - a low-wealth district - was forced to layoff reading teachers and school support staff, and eliminate high school elective courses and nearly half its sports teams.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg said last week that the Governor's budget plan would mean 8,500 fewer teachers next year. This would cause an explosion in class sizes in already overcrowded classrooms across the city, after school programs would be curtailed and academic intervention services would likely be reduced.

Officials in the Albany City School District say the governor's Executive Budget plan, if approved, would result in the elimination of more than one hundred positions, and likely mean program cuts and another possible school-building closure.

The superintendent of the Eastchester school district in the Lower Hudson Valley said the governor's proposal would result in larger class sizes and layoffs - adding that personnel cuts through attrition would not be enough. And this Superintendent is not alone – in a recent survey this past fall of 150 superintendents statewide, 89 percent predicted they would likely have to eliminate jobs in their school district, even before the threat of further severe cuts had materialized.

Don't Erase Our Progress

Now is not the time to take a step backward. Our kids can't afford that. Please, continue investing in our students, our teachers, and our schools. Don't erase the progress we've made. With a committed investment in our public education system by the state Legislature via Foundation Aid reforms enacted in 2007, the significant progress and proven results being made by our students statewide can continue.

Test scores and graduation rates are up. Eighty-six percent of students in Math in grades six through eight achieved the standards in 2009 compared with 80 percent a year earlier. New York leads the nation in Advance Placement test results and we are the largest and most diverse population taking the exam. Recently, 197 schools and 26 districts have been removed from the list of schools needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act. And last year, the state's public education system was ranked among the top three in the nation by the independent national publication, "Education Week."

 In fact, I've seen firsthand, the miracles that can be accomplished in our schools.

Ten years ago, the school where I taught, PS 32 in the Fordham section of the Bronx, was at risk of closure. But thanks to a strategic plan based on teamwork and a desire to the do right thing for our students and community, we were able to turn PS 32 around. We implemented a series of professional development programs for both staff and new teachers. We placed a greater emphasis on science curriculum, and hired two new science teachers. And we held outreach workshops on subjects such as math and technology, which were attended by parents.

Now, PS 32, ranks in the top 10 percent of all New York City elementary schools and is a textbook for educators who want to create a productive learning environment and improve student achievement. Seventy-five percent of students are now proficient in English language arts. Two years ago, the percentage was 59. And in math, 93 percent of students are proficient, up from 80 percent in 2006-07.

Poughkeepsie Middle School is another success story. Test scores there a decade ago were so low only 17 percent of the kids met state standards on the eighth-grade math test, and the school was placed under state corrective action.

But again, thanks to hard work, a series of teacher-led changes and a new collaborative approach with a principal who came up through the ranks, student achievement has improved significantly. Investments were made in the school. Four English language arts teachers, and two math teachers were hired. Teachers were relieved of non-instructional duties so that they could work on model lesson plans, compare notes on students and intensively review student data. As a result, test scores in math and ELA jumped dramatically, and today, this school is on track to become a school in good standing with the state Ed Department this coming year.

Simply put, we cannot afford to erase the progress our students and schools have made. But unless the deep education cuts proposed by the governor in his Executive Budget are rejected by the state Legislature, this is exactly what will happen and our students will be the ones who lose.

55/25 Retirement Option

In 2009, the Executive signed legislation into law modifying the State's public pension system, adding a new pension tier, Tier V, for all public employees hired after January 1, 2010. Included in this reform was a commitment by both the Governor and the State Legislature to enact legislation this legislative session offering an early retirement option for NYSUT members who have reached 55 years of age and have at least 25 years of service.

It is imperative that state leaders keep this commitment and enact necessary legislation as soon as possible. This option will place no financial hardship on either the New York State and Local Employees' Retirement Systems or the New York State Teachers' Retirement System and, if enacted quickly, will provide needed budgetary flexibility to school districts, SUNY and community colleges helping to avert staff layoffs and program cuts.

Allowing seasoned teachers and staff who are at the top end of the pay scale the option of retiring a few years early without a significant pension penalty, could, in some instances, save a significant number of recently hired educators and educational support staff from being laid off in the coming months.

Additional Revenue Options

The federal ARRA provided substantial funds for state stabilization over a two-year period. In fact, Federal recovery assistance is closing roughly 31 percent of New York's budget hole in the current year.

This past December, the House of Representatives passed the Jobs for Main Street Act which includes a $23 billion "Education Jobs Fund." This would provide an estimated $1.4 billion in funding for New York. We urge you to join us in reaching out to Senators Schumer and Gillibrand asking them to push for a similar bill in the Senate. This funding could go a long way towards closing our budget gap this year and saving education jobs in our state.

Another potential source of revenue is the Stock Transfer Tax. It is basically a sales tax on Wall Street paid on each transaction. The tax is technically already in effect but unfortunately the money is currently tallied, assessed, collected – then handed right back to the brokers who paid it. A side benefit of retaining some of these revenues would be to lessen the frenzied volatility that has caused many of the recent problems on Wall Street. New York State currently rebates 100 percent of the $16 billion back to brokers. We suggest that 80 percent be rebated and that the state retain the other 20 percent which would result in an additional $3.2 billion annually in state revenue.

Finally, we would be pleased to provide, in a separate submission, additional revenue generating ideas including the cost saving benefits of economies of scale and initiatives such as green schools.

Teacher Centers

As we continue the discussion of how we can provide our kids with everything they need to excel, it is also important to provide those who will teach these students with the necessary support to ensure their success. There are currently over 130 teacher centers across New York state. These centers are operated by teachers and over 200,000 teachers were served by their teacher center last year. Teacher centers provide an invaluable resource to all teachers and contribute to the growth and maturity of less experienced teachers. In fact, the Governor's own Race to the Top application includes a reliance on teacher centers as a means to sustain and improve professional development programs statewide. Given this backdrop, it is surprising to us that the Governor chose to eliminate funding for teacher centers in his Executive Budget. In addition to the loss of high quality professional development opportunities, the loss of funding for these centers will also mean adding hundreds of teacher center employees to the list of New York's unemployed. We ask for a full restoration to last year's enacted level of $40 million.

Special Education

In the area of Summer School Special Education, the Governor's budget proposes to modify state reimbursement to school districts for summer school special education costs from what is now a flat rate of 70 percent for all districts to a share of somewhere between 10-80 percent using the Foundation Aid State Sharing Ratio. The proposal would also limit the portion of the current year appropriation that is available to pay prior years' claims. Statewide, this would create "winners and losers", but overall districts' aid for this program would be cut by $86 million in the 2010-11 school year.

The Governor's budget also proposes to limit the growth in the county share of costs for preschool special education to two percent per year beginning with the 2010-11 school year and to assign any growth above two percent to the school district of residence. This cost shift would have an immediate impact on school districts and is estimated to increase costs by $11.7 million outside of New York city. The cost shift will have the same impact as a cut and it will force the elimination of personnel or programs. Local taxpayers may also be asked to foot the bill, placing significant pressure on local property taxpayers at a time when state leaders are attempting to lessen the burden.

Public Libraries

Public libraries are playing an essential role in helping people deal with the current financial crisis. There was a great story in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago which highlights this. According to the article, American libraries are reporting up to a 65 percent rise in attendance over the past 12 months as droves of people visit their local library to make use of the free services they offer. It seems that the bulk of these new visitors are turning to the library after losing their jobs, with many needing urgent help and advice on how to search for jobs, update their resumes and even looking for free entertainment given their loss of disposable income. In addition to ever popular lending services, free broadband internet access, counseling services and careers workshops are also proving a massive draw.

Despite their obvious value, publicly funded libraries have been under siege. The Governor's proposal would be the fifth cut in library aid in two years. If this cut is enacted it will bring funding below 1998 levels. The cumulative impact of these five cuts would total an 18 percent cut in less than two years (this amounts to an $18 million reduction since April 2008). The local impact reported statewide is extensive resulting in reduced hours, layoffs, program elimination and service cuts.

According to a recent survey conducted by Public Agenda, "At a time of broad concern about wasteful public spending...71 percent say that libraries spend public money well. Fifty-two percent say that if their local library needed additional funding, they would favor tax increases to generate necessary resources."

We ask you to reject the Governor's proposed cut to libraries and recognize the essential role that libraries are playing in helping people deal with the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

Conclusion

The Executive Budget would reverse much of the painstaking progress schools have made in closing the achievement gap in recent years. It would delay for far too long the state's commitment to provide the resources every student needs to meet rigorous learning and graduation standards. However, we know that the Governor's proposal is the first word in the annual budget battle. I am confident that legislators from both parties will understand the impact this proposal would have on the ability of schools to meet the needs of students. As always, we will be working with the Legislature and the governor to improve this spending plan to ensure that the final budget - the last word - meets the needs of our public schools.