budget basics

Pre-K expansion will be pricier than expected, budget shows

Mayor Bill de Blasio pushing pre-K applications in Staten Island. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Expanding pre-kindergarten will be more expensive than expected, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday as he revealed a spending plan that includes additional funding for pre-K and the city’s school-turnaround program.

The 2016 budget includes $409 million for the city’s growing pre-K program, which is expected to enroll more than 70,000 four-year-olds next year. The city had estimated the cost at $340 million in February, a figure de Blasio said had grown because of increased demand and the steep cost of finding private space for pre-K classrooms in areas where the public schools had none to spare.

“It’s more popular than even we knew it would be, so we’re hitting the high end of our numbers,” de Blasio said. “We know the costs are going to be higher than anticipated, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Nearly 69,000 families applied for a pre-K seat last month, according to the city. The borough with the biggest increase in applications was Queens, where many neighborhoods have perennially overcrowded schools.

“The physical build-out is proving to be a challenge in the sense that we have to find a lot more space in a number of neighborhoods where there’s school overcrowding, so we didn’t have the option to go into our existing schools and find additional space,” de Blasio said.

The city is also set to spend $108.3 million on the “Renewal” turnaround program next fiscal year, up from $30.7 million this fiscal year, officials said, a sign that the program will shift toward more intensive support and student services next year. Last fall, de Blasio promised to invest $150 million in 94 low-performing schools over three years to pay for extra services for students and training for staffers.

Officials added that the education department had repurposed more than $40 million in federal funds to use for struggling schools. That is in addition to another $34 million being allocated to boost the budgets of those schools, and other schools with low attendance that are getting extra services in order to become “community schools.”

Struggling schools will also receive funding to offer more academic help to overage eighth graders, vision screenings for students, additional science programs, and access to a substance abuse prevention specialist, according to budget documents, and 63 new guidance counselors will head to “high-needs” schools.

“We are going to just keep adding elements to turn these schools around,” de Blasio said.

The city isn’t allocating extra money for its after-school programs, which it also expanded to all middle schools last year. In February, the city said it would spend $190 million to serve 100,000 students; on Thursday, it said it would only spend $163 million but serve 107,000 students.

The city will allocate funding for 444 new programs in the Public School Athletic League, a significant increase. The city has faced ongoing criticism for the options available to students at small schools, prompting some recent student protests.

Meanwhile, the results of an experiment offering free lunch to middle-schoolers this year haven’t been convincing enough to expand it to other grades, de Blasio said. Middle schools will offer free lunch again next year to allow for a “more thorough test.”

“The results are mixed so far in terms of the impact it’s having, meaning the additional number of children who are taking advantage of it,” de Blasio said. “It’s not been that large so far.”

City Council members and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have called for extending the program to all students, as have advocates, who say the pilot program was effective. In March, Fariña told the City Council that there was a 6.4 percent increase in the share of students eating free lunch at the 291 middle schools that were part of the program.

“Universal free school lunch in middle schools this year is proving to be an amazing and well-documented success. It is a no-brainer to ensure that all 1.1 million students are included in the June final budget,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates.

Overall, the education department’s operating budget for 2016 stands at $21.7 billion, which includes $533 million more from the state than the city received last year.

The City Council will hold hearings on the budget before a final version is adopted in June. An education committee’s hearing is scheduled for May 28, and the new fiscal year starts July 1.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.