Over the past few months, the Assembly was faced with the challenging task of negotiating a series of highly controversial education proposals tied to state education aid in the Governors budget with general support in State Senate. The budget passed reflects a hard fought compromise by the Assembly to both achieve an unprecedented increase in education funding while rejecting and moderating a host of unacceptable education policies put forth by the Governor.
There were significant wins and serious compromises in the budget. There was an unprecedented increase in education funding of $1.6 billion including a nearly 60 percent reduction in the Gap Elimination Adjustment, an increase in Foundation Aid, $30 million increase in upstate funding for Pre-K, $20 million in grants including for libraries, teacher centers, and bilingual education. This increase includes an additional $10 million in education funds into the 109th District.
Had the budget not been passed on time, the Governor could have submitted a straight extender bill which included no increase in education funding (except the $377 million for building aid reimbursement) along with all of his original policy proposals (50 percent of APPR based on testing, state takeover/receivership of 'failing' schools, charter school expansion, education investment tax credits, etc.).
The Assembly's rejection of an extender budget would have risked a shutdown of state government. It is very difficult to advocate for months for record high funding and for rejection of a host of provisions in the education budget - and win on many of them - and then not support the Assembly's compromise. The difficult budget negotiation process is a three-way discussion among the Governor, the Assembly, and the Senate, making it impossible to simply remove only those items we rejected.
The Governor has significant budgetary powers that were expanded during Pataki administration, such that without the Governors approval the Assembly cannot pass its own budget bills. Consequently, despite disappointments in the education budget, the final budget is a serious compromise from what the Governor first proposed.
In the final few days of the budget negotiations, the most contentious part was the teacher evaluations (APPR) linked with excessive testing - an issue which has been debated for the last three out of four years in the legislature. I had and continue to have serious misgivings about this final bill language and have been actively advocating to ensure the most flexible interpretation of the language along with amendments where needed. While the language was troubling and rushed, one positive was delegating the evaluation issue away from the legislature and the Governor to the Board of Regents, who are the appointed education professionals. Despite having strongly opposed some of the previous work of the Regents with regard to testing and implementation of the common core standards, we have a slate of new Regents, who have been given parameters to work within.
We need to change the conversation about education. We can no longer look at the very people who can help our children - our teachers - as the scapegoats for problems in education. We can no longer continue to value a standardized test that is so flawed parents are more concerned about their children taking it than passing it. We can no longer focus on underperforming schools and expect the teachers and staff to correct every social ill of the community and society. The solution must be multi-pronged and go beyond the school doors.
I understand the frustration and the concern, I share it, and have already reached out to the Regents and more to begin work to maximize flexibility and seek changes where needed. This omnibus bill was not an easy vote and our work does not end with this vote.
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