State of Education in 2019: Westchester County
Education issues are bound to be at the forefront in Albany this year. Issues like school funding, the state's aid formulas, charter schools, the property-tax levy cap, and teacher evaluations are certain to be debated by legislators.
Making the upcoming session especially interesting: Westchester County schools will have some of their most faithful legislative advocates in political leadership positions.
Westchester's taxpayers are investing more than ever in their schools — attracting superintendents with top-dollar compensation, renovating schools or even building new ones, and making other long-term investments to aid some of the highest-achieving students in the state. While money issues like the debate over equitable state aid are poised to take center stage in political debates this year, there are also many issues facing kids, parents and educators that go far beyond dollars and cents.
Changing political landscape
Democrats will run the state Senate for only the second time since 1964 when the next legislative session opens Jan. 9. Democratic control of the Senate, Assembly and governor’s mansion will give the party a rare opportunity to shake up key areas of education policy across New York. The educational interests of the Lower Hudson Valley, in particular, are well known to the new Senate leadership, as both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Education Committee Chairperson Shelley Mayer are from Yonkers.
What to watch for
Mental health/social emotional learning focus in schools: We're in the midst of the first school year in which New York districts are legally required to provide students with mental health instruction. Schools were given a framework for delivering mental health curriculum across all grade levels, while integrating wellness practices into the overall climate. The state's framework lays out recommended skills and knowledge students should gain regarding mental health — the three key learning areas are self-management, relationships and resource management. But schools are not required to use a specific curriculum, and have been encouraged to tailor instruction and programs to their own local needs.
School-by-school funding requirement: Starting in the 2018-19 school year, 76 larger school districts around the state — including Yonkers and Poughkeepsie — were required to submit to the state Education Department detailed budgets of school-building level spending. This is an effort to better understand how districts spend state aid, improve school finance transparency, and determine whether some schools receive disproportionately more funding than others. Starting in 2019, 306 more districts, including 23 in Westchester, will be required to submit the information.
Teacher evaluations: Legislators will feel pressure from day one to figure out what to do about the state’s much-derided teacher-evaluation formula. The state Board of Regents will likely extend a moratorium through the 2019-20 school year preventing the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers — the most controversial part of the evaluation system. But the question is whether to make the moratorium permanent (as the New York State United Teachers union wanted in the last session), or kill the evaluation system entirely and build a new statewide system based on teacher feedback. Others would like local districts to control their own evaluations.
School funding: The debate over how to better fund the state's schools will likely pick up steam this year. In a recent address to lay out priorities in 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote off the state's "Foundation Aid" formula for distributing education aid and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit in 2007, which produced the formula, as "ghosts of the past and distractions from the present." Rather, he said, focus should be given to "the local distribution of aid." Others, like state Sen. Shelley Mayer, have said modernizing the formula is a priority. "Schools are owed, specifically under the Foundation Aid formula and the CFE lawsuit, significantly more and that we have to find a way to get them back to what they’re owed," Mayer said on WCNY's Capitol Pressroom in December.
Equivalency curriculum in non-public schools: New state guidelines calling for inspections every five years of private schools — to ensure students receive instruction that's "substantially equivalent" to what's taught in public schools — have been met by heated opposition from the yeshiva community and Catholic school officials. Schools that don’t comply with orders to improve instruction could lose funding or face sanctions that would, in the worst cased, effectively shut a school. Initial reviews are set to begin in 2019 and must be completed by Dec. 15, 2021. State legislators could be pressured to change state law requiring substantial equivalency.
School bus safety: Heading into 2019, there’s increased scrutiny of overall school bus safety following a fatal crash of a school bus last May on Route 80 in New Jersey. Two bills introduced in Albany aim to increase school bus safety. The first would require lap and shoulder belts be installed and their usage enforced. The other would allow districts and bus companies to install cameras on the outside of buses to capture images of vehicles that drive past stopped buses.
State tests: No major changes are planned for next spring's state math and ELA test for grades 3-8. But don’t get too comfortable. The state Education Department plans to create new tests, for use starting in 2021, that align with the state's modified version of the Common Core standards. Meanwhile, more districts have moved toward computer-based testing, a trend the state expects to continue this year, despite technical glitches with 2018 ELA exams. Statewide opt-out rates dipped for the second consecutive year — to 18 percent.
On the beat
New schools: School construction has been very active in Westchester for the last three years. Nearly half of the county's 40 school districts have taken advantage of low interest rates to seek community support to take on millions of dollars in long-term debt for large-scale projects. But school construction in 2019 is expected to include brand new school buildings for the first time in more than a decade. Pelham begins work on a new Hutchinson School this summer. Yonkers plans to add four new schools to its growing and overcrowded district of 27,000 students. And Greenburgh has proposed a $115 million bond to consolidate the district into three school buildings on one campus, a plan that includes a new 3-8 school, and adds classrooms to its pre-K-2 school.
School safety: The topic of "school safety" is broad and growing. The subject encompasses a multitude of intersecting issues to form a complex web facing educators with limited resources but a strong sense of urgency, as anxiety about school safety continues to come into focus. Prepare to hear educators talking about mental health, a concept known as "social and emotional learning" to help students discuss and dissect feelings, relationships with local law enforcement, conflict resolution, safety upgrades to school buildings, and school climate surveys to measure how students feel in their school environments.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins: As the new majority leader, the 12-year state senator takes center stage as part of the Albany power trio — until now known as the "three men in a room" — that negotiate legislation behind closed doors. Stewart-Cousins, of Yonkers, will join the governor and Assembly speaker this legislative session to prioritize issues. It's not yet clear what those priorities will be, but Stewart-Cousins is steeped in downstate issues, and is well aware of the challenges faced by school districts in her congressional zone, including Yonkers, White Plains, Greenburgh and the river towns.
Shelley Mayer: 2018 was a big year for the new state senator, who was named chair of the state Senate Education Committee in December. Mayer spent six years in the state Assembly before being elected in April to the Senate seat vacated by now-Westchester County Executive George Latimer. She was elected to a full term in November. The Yonkers native has fought for more equitable state funding for school districts, particularly those, like Yonkers, considered by many to be shortchanged by aid formulas.
New Rochelle leadership: "Interim" is a part of many titles in the city school district that had a challenging year after a spate of violence that turned deadly, and a grade-fixing scandal that is now being investigated by the state Education Department. A new superintendent search is underway, ads seek candidates for principal of the 3,500-student high school, and a number of other recently-vacated roles will need to be filled as the district tries to get off on the right foot in 2019.
By the numbers
$2.1 billion: Increase in state education funding proposed by the state Board of Regents. This is more on par with what they asked for two years ago, after requesting a $1.6 billion increase last year.
18 percent: Percentage of students statewide who opted out of grades 3-8 state exams last year, down from 19 percent in 2017. It was the second-consecutive decrease since parents started having their children boycott state tests five years ago.
210,496: The number of public school teachers in New York.
2,629,970: The number of students enrolled in public schools.
April 2-4: Dates of paper-based English language arts exams.
April 1-8: Dates of computer-based English language arts exams.
May 1-3: Dates of paper-based math exams.
April 30-May 7: Dates of computer-based math exams.
May 21: Annual school district budget vote and school board elections.