AQE Releases Report: "Contracts for Excellence Year One: Grading the State Education Department"

Expects More than Twice as Much Money to be Covered by Contracts for Excellence in 2008.

In four press conferences across the state, the Alliance for Quality Education released a report entitled Contracts for Excellence Year One: Grading the State Education Department, which evaluates the State Education Department’s oversight of the 2007 Contracts for Excellence. The report praises the State Education Department (SED) for overseeing the creation of new education programs in school districts around the state, playing an assertive oversight role with school districts, and making school districts target funds to needy schools. The report determines the SED fell short in the areas of public participation, full information disclosure and meeting the needs of English language learners. The Contract for Excellence is the new accountability system designed by Governor Spitzer that ties record increases in education aid to the best educational practices. While the report makes several recommendations for improvements to the Contracts based on the findings, AQE, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and others, note that the funding for the Contracts is scheduled to more than double next year as part of the $1.24 billion foundation aid increase expected to be in the Governor’s budget. The 2008 funding is the second installment of the state’s four-year commitment to increase classroom-operating aid (called foundation aid) by $5.5 billion.

“Our report shows that while there is room for improvement, the Contracts for Excellence are essential to the educational success of students,” said Maurice Mitchell of the Alliance for Quality Education. “The Contracts for Excellence focus on delivering educational results. Like any other contract in the world the Contract for Excellence ties funds to results. The increase of $1.24 billion expected in 2008 means we can expect school districts to deliver more in terms of educational results.”

The report finds that the New York State Education Department (SED) required districts to target funds to students in low performing schools, students with disabilities, English language learners and students from low income families. These students—as defined by law—are students with the greatest educational needs. However, the report also points out SED’s shortcomings surrounding public participation and transparency requirements.

Key Findings in Grading the State Education Department

A wide variety of education reforms were implemented across the state under the Contracts for Excellence.
School districts were required to target 75% of Contract for Excellence funds to schools with the highest concentrations of high need students and to guarantee that all low performing schools received a fair proportion of total Contract dollars.

The State Education Department played an effective oversight role by requiring several districts, most notably New York City, to reallocate funds within their Contracts.
Very few districts articulated in their Contracts specific programs to meet the needs of English language learners despite the fact that over 200,000 English language learners are in our schools.

Eighty-nine percent (89%) of school districts did not comply with the public participation requirements of the Contracts for Excellence.

The State Education Department, and most school districts, fell considerably short of full disclosure of Contract for Excellence documents and procedures.

Commenting on proposals to increase Long Island’s share of state aid, Rosa Quiles of the Puerto Rican Coalition said, “We support additional state aid for Long Island’s schools but not without accountability measures and assurance that it will target students with the highest needs like English Language Learners and students with disabilities, that’s what the Contract for Excellence give us.”

“The contracts are showing promise. There’s a chance our kids can get the tools they need to succeed. We just need to make sure that the voice of parents are heard when deciding how to use the resources” said Camille Serrano, parent of children in the Brentwood school district. Serrano went on to say, “It’s a shame that Central Islip, Hempstead, and other local school districts don’t also have a contract. We need to make sure more schools get these contracts.”

The 2007 Contracts for Excellence expenditures statewide totaled $428 million in 55 school districts with schools the state has classified as needing improvement. The Governor and Legislature enacted legislation this year that commits the state to a $7 billion four-year phased-in increase in education aid. AQE estimates that approximately $500 million additional dollars will be covered by the Contracts for Excellence as a result of the 2008 state budget, more than doubling the total funds covered by the Contracts.

Central Islip, Brentwood, and Wyandanch unite to support Governor Spitzer's fair funding budget

Brentwood, NY)- The members of Long Island Progressive Coalition’s Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) gathered Tuesday, March 20 to rally the communities of Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch in support of Governor Spitzer’s proposed education budget. The State Senate voted for a counter budget that would largely reverse the Governor’s basic funding reforms. It was this charge that lead an overflowing crowd to voice their emphatic claim that the State Senate budget was both unfair and immoral.

A diverse mix of speakers ranging from students, parents, teachers, and school superintendents followed the theme of the night by answering the question “What if our schools had the fair funding we deserved?” Amparo Stadler a Central Islip parent said, “We’re only asking for our share, nothing more and nothing less. If we got our fair share we could at least know that every kid here has a fighting chance. The status quo has them fighting against the odds.” School superintendent Michael Cohen added, “The Governor’s budget takes bold steps to address the shameful history of separate and unequal schools right here on Long Island.”

The Governor’s education budget is nothing short of an historic investment that will deliver a $3.8 billion increase for schools on Long Island and upstate. These increases will be phased in over four years. For example, the schools in Senator Trunzo’s district alone will receive $157 million in annual classroom operating aid by 2010. More importantly, the Governor’s budget proposal would create a new funding formula that is fair and equitable and targets future investments at the state’s most needy districts. While the Senate Majority’s plan would provide many high needs districts, including many on Long Island, an increase in 2007-08 that is on par with the Governor’s plan, in future years the Senate Majority plan would mean wealthy districts receive a substantially higher percentage increase than poorer districts.

The State Senate had released their version of the budget, which they were referring to as “Foundation plus”. This budget offers 1.2 billion dollars more in school aid. Schools like Central Islip and Brentwood stand to receive little of that increase while the wealthiest school districts in the state would receive a 96% increase in school aid on average. “We support increases in school aid and we want every school district to benefit, but only if it’s given in a fair and equitable way. The Senate is purposing a bill that locks in a lifetime of inequality. Why would Senators Trunzo and Johnson support this budget?” said Leila Warren of North Bay Shore. Though the State Senate bill provides more dollars, students in high needs districts will lose out in the long run due to a fundamental shift away from basing aid on need. Bree Wright, a sophomore from Wyandanch emphatically stated, “It’s like the Senate is offering us $20 today instead of $5 more in our allowance. I’ll take the $5 extra allowance money every time.”

Just as the Governor’s budget places a focus on the educational needs of high needs districts, there is new tax relief in other parts of the budget designed to focus on the needs of those communities of average needs. The result means Long Island as a region will truly benefit. Schools that need smaller class sizes, more programs, and better strategies to boost student achievement will get the attention they need. While communities that are being crippled by property taxes, largely a result of school costs, get significant tax relief. Mr. Andres Rios, a Brentwood resident, sums it up like this, “Our kids finally get money to make sure they graduate and folks who live in districts with high graduation rates and good programs get a break on their crazy property taxes. It’s like we all get what we need.”

The Alliance for Quality education saw this last budget fight as a question of basic justice and ethics, not simple funding increases. “The lack of consideration to high needs districts is unacceptable. The Governor’s formula will give every school district an increase while targeting funds in high needs districts. Included in this are accountability measures to make sure every dollar reaches the classroom,” says Danielle Asher of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. “It’s not about the money, it’s about basic fairness.”

Many of the students from Central Islip, Brentwood and Wyandanch are highly aware of the circumstance around what was being invested in this budget decision. Most of the pupils have a real interest in the future of educational achievement. Maria Peña, a senior at Central Islip high school had this to say at the end of the event, “Governor Spitzer’s proposal is the first time in all my school years I do not feel ignored by the State. We need to make sure they do right by us and the next generation.”

On April 2, 2007 Governor Spitzer held a press conference in Manhattan announcing the substantial breakthrough of our fourteen year struggle to deliver a quality education to every child. Based upon Governor Spitzer’s proposal New York State is making a record statewide increase in school funding this year. Parents have gained the strong system of accountability proposed by Governor Spitzer that will drive funding to key educational strategies including smaller classes, full day pre-kindergarten, teacher quality, after school program and other reforms.

The fair school aid formula proposed by Governor Spitzer has been adopted largely intact. We have established the essential tool we have always lacked in order to fairly and fully fund our schools. In this budget we partially use that tool, next year, we must fully use the tool. The formula adopted this year makes an historic commitment to a fivefold growth in classroom operating aid by 2010-2011 with the lion’s share of this money going to high needs schools.

“This year, by adding his voice to the struggle for quality education, Eliot Spitzer forged a fair funding formula against fierce opposition,” said Billy Easton, Executive Director, Alliance for Quality Education. “Now the Governor and our communities must continue hand in hand to secure an enduring legacy of educational excellence by ensuring this formula becomes the centerpiece for how we distribute every dollar of classroom funding.”