Education issues to watch in Albany: School funding, mental health, mayoral control

As districts continue to recover from the academic and social-emotional impacts of the pandemic, New York state lawmakers will be pressed to address several issues facing schools during the new legislative session.

Inflation has driven up the cost of finishing the long-awaited process of fully funding Foundation Aid, the state’s main school aid formula. As the country faces the risk of a recession, advocates worry about whether lawmakers will fulfill their promise to finish funding the formula.

Advocates also say they will push for solutions to issues that have become more pressing during the pandemic, including hiring challenges and student mental health, while others will continue a yearslong push for the state to raise the charter school cap. 

Here are some of the education issues that may come up in the new legislative session, which is set to start Wednesday: 

Inflation adds pressure to cost of funding schools

Last year, state lawmakers promised to spend billions of more dollars to fully fund Foundation Aid, which accounts for the bulk of financial support that school districts receive from the state. They agreed to fund the formula over three years, with the final phase-in scheduled for the 2023-24 fiscal year. 

However, high inflation rates have pushed the projected cost for the final phase-in of the money from a $1.9 billion increase to about $2.7 billion.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who agreed to fulfill the formula last year as part of a legal settlement, has declined to say whether she will include this final, larger payment in next year’s budget. Both advocates and lawmakers say they’re concerned, but they haven’t yet heard any reneging on Hochul’s promise. 

“There is a very high level of commitment on the part of my fellow legislators to see that this Foundation Aid promise is completely followed through on and fulfilled,” said Sen. John Liu, a Queens Democrat who oversees the Senate’s New York City education committee. “It should be the governor’s self-imposed mandate as well.”

Separately, state policymakers are also asking for $1 million to hire researchers who will review and create models to update the 15-year-old Foundation Aid formula. State officials and advocates contend the formula needs an update because it has outdated measures, such as for calculating student poverty, which is currently based in part on 2000 Census data.

“Let’s get recommendations from experts to make it more equitable,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education. 

Will Hochul try to lift the cap on charter schools?

One question is whether the governor will actively seek to lift the cap on how many charter schools can open in New York. After silence on the issue on the campaign trail, Hochul said she supported lifting the cap when asked about it during a gubernatorial debate with Republican opponent Lee Zeldin.

Under the cap, 460 charter schools are allowed to operate in New York, including 290 in New York City, which was reached in 2019. Overall, enrollment has grown in New York City’s charter sector while enrollment has dropped in traditional public schools. But the picture is more complicated: Nearly 60% of individual charter schools have enrolled fewer students during the pandemic.

Hochul’s office declined to say whether she will push to lift the cap this year. Some charter advocates, who have pushed for it for years, are hoping she does. 

In a statement after the election, James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, said the organization was looking forward to “supporting her efforts to lift the cap.”

Hochul’s campaign received at least $70,000 in campaign donations across two pro-charter political action committees. However, she also received more than $186,000 across the city, state, and national teachers unions, which generally oppose the expansion of charter schools. 

Liu said he doesn’t expect her to touch the issue, noting that she simply replied “yes,” to the debate question of whether she supports lifting the cap, which is different from actively pursuing the issue. 

Even if she does, it’s not likely she’ll find considerable support in the legislature, as the issue has not gained traction in recent years. 

Schools continue to struggle with hiring and student mental health

Some advocates are hoping for solutions to the hiring challenges that many schools are facing.

Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents, said it has been one of the biggest issues that school leaders have reported to his organization during the pandemic. The issue came up during a recent state Assembly hearing and has plagued districts nationally, too. 

“We hear from districts, ‘We’d like to hire more mental health professionals to help, but we can’t find people,’” Lowry said. 

Lawmakers have floated a tax incentive for school employees as one way to attract people to school districts, NY1 reported. Lowry pointed to “useful steps” that have already taken place, such as the state education department ending the controversial edTPA certification exam that was previously required of teaching candidates in New York. Separately, Hochul successfully proposed lifting the cap on how much retired school staffers could earn without losing their pensions if they returned to schools, but Lowry noted that law is only in effect for this school year. 

“It’s a huge issue — [we’re] not completely sure what to do about it, but continuing the exemption for retirees to work without losing pension benefits is kind of a simple straightforward step to take,” Lowry said. 

School leaders also continue to report big challenges in dealing with student mental health, Lowry said, and they’re hoping for more targeted funding to address those concerns. 

Federal relief money likely helped districts address some of these issues, but these funds will sunset next year. It’s possible that increases in Foundation Aid can also help. Last year’s budget included $100 million over two years that would be available to school districts as grants to address mental health issues in schools. State officials plan to award those funds through a competitive process they will launch this year, according to a spokesperson for the state education department.

“We don’t see the mental health issues diminishing any time soon,” Lowry said. “We think there will be a need for continuing, targeted funding for schools to help with mental health concerns.”

State looks to compare NYC’s mayoral control to other districts

Last legislative session, lawmakers extended New York City’s mayoral control system of schools — where the mayor effectively has control over policy decisions instead of a school board — by another two years. 

This year, Liu said lawmakers will begin looking at how other school governance systems across the nation operate and compare that to “20 years of [mayoral] control experience in New York City and see how to best bring schools forward.”

Liu declined to share more details, including whether there would be public hearings or some sort of formal review. But his comments indicate that lawmakers are interested in potential changes to the city’s governance system when they must again decide in 2024 whether to extend mayoral control. 

Their decision this year to extend mayoral control by two years — half of what Mayor Eric Adams and Hochul requested – came with tweaks meant to add more parent representation to the system. 

“This year, we have a little bit more breathing space,” Liu said. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at [email protected]