Commissioner's letterhead

November 2008






Story Time

During holidays families retell the old stories. We tell of times of adversity and how everyone pulled together to make it through. We share with the young ones family stories of wartime separation, economic dislocation, and also stories of new beginnings and achievement. We recount how those who came before us sacrificed to enable the children to graduate high school, or go to college, or in other ways master the skills needed to thrive. What stories will we tell of the times we are living through now? I think they will be uplifting.

The Regents and the leaders of the University of the State of New York created an imaginative yet practical plan in early 2006 to raise achievement and close the gaps in the face of competitors around the globe who, like us, understand the imperative to educate everyone to high standards. That plan is built on accomplishments as well as recognition of how much farther we need to go. We are in difficult straits now, but we have been there before. We must squeeze more value than ever from the resources we have, reduce costs beyond what we might think possible, and press on with the task of raising achievement for everyone. And we must take steps to prepare for the next stage of the reform. Especially now, we must renew the standards, deploy new practice, improve the data systems, transform the State Education Department to provide valuable service, strengthen relationships with our partners, and prepare school leaders and teachers for new challenges. This work cannot await better times. We will do it now to the best of our abilities.

Preserve and Advance Foundation Aid

An SED colleague said, “All aid formulas tell a story.” The story told by this one is that children educated in the poorest communities shall have a sound, basic education, one that is fair and adequate in comparison with education in successful school districts.

New York’s policy, recommended by the Regents and enacted into law, is that children in greatest need who are educated in high-need schools shall receive funding sufficient to provide a sound, basic education. Such children are at an even greater disadvantage during an economic downturn. It is especially in such times that we must sustain the commitment to Foundation Aid.

The Regents will discuss and act on their proposed Foundation Aid amount for 2009-2010. Foundation Aid is one of the most significant Regents proposals in the last two decades. And the Board’s approach ensured many advocates for the idea. Over the years the Regents Subcommittee on State Aid presented good ideas based on the data and research, and always remained open to and often incorporated the good ideas of others. Now, economic conditions will test our resolve and that of our partners. It is more important than ever to preserve and advance Foundation Aid.

Foundation Aid reflects the actual cost of successful education programs in New York, variations in regional cost and student need, and a reasonable local share. Foundation Aid directs most of the increases to students in greatest need. It is a practical instrument to close gaps in student achievement.

New York does not yet have a fully implemented state aid system that is fair and adequate – we are only a little more than a third of the way there. We contemplate the third year in a four year phase-in. The phase-in schedule adopted in 2007 is “back-loaded,” which means that the later years anticipate larger increases than in the first year. This schedule is no longer feasible. As the Board will discuss, it will probably not be feasible to add just one more year to the phase either, because the step up to the remaining amount necessary to achieve full implementation would be too high. Nevertheless, a bold extension of the phase-in should be part of a proposal. And we must also take a step forward with an aid increase for 2009-2010.

Some may ask, why not pause for a year and hold state aid level? The answer is that a zero increase would abandon the policy behind Foundation Aid. If New York were not to continue the move toward full implementation, it would be difficult to make up two years of adjustments in the following year, and all too easy to delay again. The challenge of Foundation Aid is that it is transparent. There are only four moving parts. If we stop for one year, everyone would see that the finance system no longer attempts to provide for a sound, basic education.

This year is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is the need to act quickly. Governor Paterson will introduce the executive budget on December 16. Therefore, the Regents recommendation is needed by the end of the November board meeting. State aid recommendations depend on data provided by school districts no later than November 15. We have had excellent cooperation from school districts and leaders of the education associations in securing the data.

The 2009-2010 Budget Recommendation

At the same time as the Board of Regents are meeting on November 18 the Legislature will convene in a second special session to address the state budget shortfall. Along with all other state agencies, SED already has made two separate reductions in current expenditures totaling $16.7 million. As a result of that and a hiring freeze, we must hold 150 positions vacant. The Legislature in August reduced aid to localities, including for education programs, but spared state education aid. Last month the Regents EMSC and Higher Education committees heard Senior Deputy Commissioner Johanna Duncan-Poitier describe the implications of these reductions for service delivery and described the need to manage expectations to fit diminished resources. Deputy Commissioner Cort will lead a similar discussion this month in the VESID Committee.

The Governor has this month taken additional action by requiring all agency expenditures that do not involve significant federal reimbursement or impact public health and safety to have prior approval from the Division of the Budget and the Office of State Operations.

The Regents will discuss a 2009-2010 budget proposal that reflects three priorities: 1) ensure school district program stability by maintaining Foundation Aid; 2) maintain core SED operations through fee increases for Cultural Education and Office of the Professions, no further reductions in revenue-generating accounts, and level-funding general funds for state operations to preserve the capacity to raise student achievement; and 3) to the extent feasible, maintain aid to localities.

Regents Will Adopt Legislative Priorities

The Regents will adopt their final list of state and federal legislative priorities during this meeting. The priorities for state legislation are: reduce unnecessary school district reporting; allow retired teachers to teach in hard-to-staff schools and subjects without affecting their pension; require criminal history checks and fingerprinting of Office of Cultural Education employees and volunteers and employees in special education placements to protect children and valuable artifacts; update the definition of public accountancy for the first time since 1947; give children a better start by lowering the compulsory school age to 5; expand the role of BOCES, and in that context remove the cap on district superintendent salary; and conform state statute to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and implementing regulations.

Federal priorities include: engaging with the new presidential administration and the new Congress on possible amendments to the No Child Left Behind Act; amendments to the Workforce Investment Act; improvements to the E-Rate program; and support for early childhood education, the Museum and Library Services Act and the Preserve America’s Historical Record Act. Also included are recommendations for funding for these and other key federal programs.

Career and Technical Education

A district superintendent observed that in his experience school districts with multiple paths to graduation have higher graduation rates. While most students pursue a traditional path and graduate in four years, many others graduate only because of Career and Technical Education (CTE), alternative education, and dual enrollment programs that combine secondary and postsecondary courses. While many students have all these options and more, many do not. The Board’s determination to increase graduation rates is part of what drives the continuing discussion of CTE.

This month the Regents will hear from CTE practitioners and discuss potential improvements in policy and practice to overcome barriers to expanded CTE opportunities. The off-line regional committee meeting in January drew attention to many issues. CTE programs depend on well-prepared CTE teachers, yet there are shortages here. Strong CTE programs have close relationships with the employer community that enables them to align with evolving workplace requirements. CTE programs have demanding standards, and in this field as in so many others, raising standards is a perennial task. And finally, CTE programs have benefited from the program approval element of Regents policy, which provides a systematic review of local needs, capacity, and best practice. CTE program approval has to remain current. All these elements are points of departure for the Regents discussion this month.

Graduation Rates for English Language Learners

Graduation rates for English Language Learners (ELLs) are low and actually declining. The Regents discussed this unacceptable situation in September, and agreed to confront the data this month and at the same time consider policies and practices that would raise graduation rates. An overall graduation rate of 90 percent is feasible but that result demands urgent action to raise ELL graduation rates. Whether it is a matter of state policy, local practice, capacity, or a combination of all three, New York is not getting the job done for many ELL children.

The data show clearly that former ELL students outperform students who have never been counted as ELL. There are instructional programs that work very well for English Language Learners and we must make sure that they are available to students who can benefit from them. Our aim is to educate all children.

English Language Learners are not all alike in what they need: policy and practice must adjust to that reality. Students with interrupted formal education, for example, are said to be at greatest risk. There are so many other groups of ELLs, including students who are long-term ELLs, children with disabilities, new immigrants, gifted and talented students, overage high school students, and former ELLs.

We have remarkably skilled and committed colleagues on the Committee of Practitioners to help us. The deputy commissioners and I have met with them many times. As individuals and collectively, they appear to know a great deal about what works and they have strong views on why those practices do not have sufficient traction in schools to educate all ELL students to standards. Let’s continue to consider their views as we refine policy and practice. While Regents cannot deploy effective practice in the classroom directly, they control many policy levers that can remove obstacles to good practice. The EMSC discussion this month should break new ground on ELL graduation rates.

Progress on the Statewide Plan for Higher Education

This month the Higher Education Committee will discuss a draft progress report on the Statewide Plan for Higher Education, which will require Regents approval in December for submission to the Governor and Legislature. It will be a remarkable account of action.

The strength of the plan lies in both its conception and follow-through. The leaders of all four sectors of higher education wrote the plan in response to Regents priorities. That circumstance gave the plan validity and reality from its inception. The Governor’s Commission on Higher Education recommendations reflects the same priorities found in the Statewide Plan, including access, affordability, closing the performance gap, research, and graduate education.

The progress achieved so far includes a modest increase in the college graduation rate, streamlining program approval through joint effort with sector leaders, stronger teacher preparation, regional connections that have brought the P-16 partnership idea to life everywhere, and a renewed focus on teaching in urban schools.

Higher education in all its diversity is and will remain among the most powerful economic drivers. It is a particular strength in New York, and follow-through on the Statewide Plan is one way the Regents can help preserve and protect this great resource.

Professional Development for School Leaders.

The Regents focus consistently on raising achievement and closing the gaps, and they use every policy lever available to advance that goal. Another opportunity comes before the Board this month through a proposal that builds on a 2006 Board action to require professional development for school leaders. Two questions for the Regents to consider are: What do school leaders need to know and be able to do to enable the student-teacher-curriculum encounter in the classroom to result in high student achievement? And, how can we enable school leaders to learn that knowledge and practice?

The State Education Department has many partners in building capacity for professional development including The Wallace Foundation, which has provided major financial support as well as access to national experts in leadership development aimed at enhancing student learning. If the regulations that emerge from the Regents discussion of this matter reflect research and national practice on leadership development now available, it could help accomplish the Board’s aim to raise student achievement.

The Regents item recommends defining the professional knowledge and skills that must be included in professional development for school leaders, including to respond to the needs of children with autism.

Implementation of Technology Initiatives Relating to Licensure and Discipline.

The Professional Practice Committee will discuss three SED technology applications: scanning initiatives, a “Right Now” project that will post over 1,000 frequently-asked questions and answers on the web for the public, and a technology project which will lead to full automation for all Office of the Profession (OP) processes, including licensure and registration, discipline, and the integration of many customer service functions involving every office in OP.

The committee also will discuss pharmacy immunization regulations, which are an important expansion of practice for pharmacists. These rules will expand availability and access to immunizations to the entire population, particularly in poorer communities with low immunization rates.

Policy Changes Related to Claims Auditor Training.

The Regents Committee on Audits will recommend four hours of training for claims auditors reporting to local school boards. This is the first in a series of recommendations to emerge from the committee’s analysis of audits completed by the Office of the State Comptroller. The second and third most common audit findings were problems with procurement and claims processing, and this recommendation addresses both of them.

The law requires the board of a school district to audit and approve every item presented for payment. However, the board may delegate this responsibility to a claims auditor. The Office of the State Comptroller refers to this role as a “super control” because a diligent, independent-minded, and knowledgeable claims auditor can prevent loss of financial integrity simply by questioning the appropriateness of proposed expenditures.