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State education boss presses for improved funding

State education boss presses for improved funding

'The Regents are focused on keeping foundation aid'
State education boss presses for improved funding
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia toured PTech in Johnstown on Sept. 10, 2015.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to exceed the governor’s budget proposal for school funding, allowing for expansion of state Education Department staff and support for key programs.

During testimony before a panel of appropriators, Elia said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal – which would lift education aid by $961 million – had “major voids.” She highlighted pre-kindergarten, English-language learners and support for the state’s core funding formula – called foundation aid – as areas in which the governor’s budget falls short.

The Board of Regents proposed more than twice the funding level called for by the governor and sought a three-year phase-in of the $4.3 billion in outstanding aid under the foundation aid formula. The governor’s budget raised a flurry of concerns among education groups and advocates because of language that would have stopped annual calculations of how much a district would receive if the foundation aid formula were fully funded. Specifically, the state Assembly budget analysis said the executive budget “eliminates the foundation aid formula.”

“The Regents are focused on keeping foundation aid,” Elia told reporters after her testimony to lawmakers. “We are talking about continuing with foundation aid and having districts ultimately receive the funding that, under that (formula), they would receive.”

Elia didn’t expand on what concerns, if any, she had if the governor’s plan were enacted as it stands.

While definitive in her support of the aid formula, her remarks were muted compared to the claims of education advocates in the wake of the governor’s proposal. One such group called the plan a “clear and urgent threat” to public school funding.

In her testimony, Elia focused on list of proposals that outlined the priorities of the Regents and the state Education Department. She highlighted the need to expand services to English-language learners, who have graduation rates of 26 percent, and translate some state tests into multiple languages.

She also told lawmakers her department was severely understaffed and often relied on outdated technology, slowing important departmental functions and delaying services to school districts. Just one staffer knows how to use the state’s system for publishing "state aid runs," the document that spells out district-by-district funding. She pointed out that even positions funded by the Legislature can be slow to fill, because the department needs authorization from the Department of Budget to fill certain positions.

Elia told lawmakers that she has lacked the authorization to fill 280 positions – about 10 percent of the department’s workforce – for several months. The budget office did approve 150 positions late Monday afternoon, she said.  

“In too many offices, we simply cannot keep up with the work of serving teachers, districts and your constituents,” Elia said.

She said she supported the governor’s call for streamlining the state’s pre-kindergarten programs – a plan she proposed last year – while emphasizing that the programs should first serve 4-year-olds before providing spots to 3-year-olds. She also said the governor’s $5 million investment in the program was not enough to make sufficient progress toward a truly universal program. If current funding were maintained, she said, it would take four or five years to have universal pre-K for the state’s 4-year-olds.

“Our focus needs to be on one age group. Get that done, and when possible and where necessary, put that in place to roll forward from 3-year-olds,” Elia said.

She later told reporters the amount of time it would take to expand pre-K to all 4-year-olds depends on how much the state spends on the program.

“That all depends on what the investment is every year, so it could be much longer (than four or five years). If the investment is $5 million, it certainly is going to be much longer.”

Some lawmakers showed an interest, during Tuesday's hearing, in continuing to explore new ways for students to graduate, particularly by pursuing career-focused studies. Assemblyman Dean Murray, a Long Island Republican, said he didn’t understand why the state couldn’t offer a “local diploma” that gives students a chance to pursue a career and technical education without passing a series of required Regents exams.

“It seems like we are trying to meld everyone together to fit the same mold, and much of it is based on tests,” Murray said.

Elia highlighted areas in which the Regents had opened up more “pathways” to graduation, most of which allow students to concentrate on particular interests and demonstrate academic skills and knowledge in place of passing a Regents exam. She also emphasized the importance of maintaining rigorous degree requirements.

“Making sure everyone walks away with a diploma does not necessarily prepare them for later in life,” Elia said. 

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