During the 2016 legislative session, state officials will once again try to cut through a thicket of thorny education topics, from education standards and teacher evaluations to charter and parochial school issues and mayoral control of the New York City school system.

But just like every other year, they’ll first have to hash out how much money to allocate for education in the state budget and how to distribute it across the state.

“The overarching issue for our committee is always as an advocate for proper funding for our schools,” said Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, the Democratic chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. “How do we make sure the schools have the resources?”

In a potential funding milestone sought by school officials and advocates for years, lawmakers say the upcoming session could finally mark the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The GEA, a major budget cut to help balance the budget in the wake of the Great Recession, has slashed billions of dollars in education funding since its implementation in the 2009-10 school year. The gap has been gradually reduced, including in the 2015 session, when lawmakers in both parties agreed to add an additional $603 million toward closing the GEA, leaving only a $434 million gap.

“If we can increase state aid to schools and try to offset some of the property tax burden on local residents, that’s important,” said state Sen. Carl Marcellino, the Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “We’ve committed, and I think the governor has said he would join us, in the elimination of the Gap Elimination program, which was put in a few years ago, which we thought was unfair to begin with. So we got rid of most of it last year, and we’re going to get rid of what’s left of it next year.”

Apart from budgetary matters, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is taking another pass at revamping the controversial Common Core education standards and the teacher evaluations tied to Common Core-aligned tests.

This year, 1 in 5 New York students opted out of the state’s standardized tests, a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the standards. Blaming the backlash on a poor rollout by the state Education Department, Cuomo said this month that he would put together another education commission to review the standards and tests and offer recommendations in time for his State of the State address.

The Education Department, under new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, is conducting a similar review, and has also suggested renaming the Common Core. State lawmakers, who appoint the Board of Regents, which sets education policy in New York, say they’ll be studying the matter too and weighing in on the governor’s reforms.

“I’m glad the governor has acknowledged that there are problems that have been problems with the Common Core,” Marcellino said. “Teachers are concerned as to how it was implemented, how it’s going to be evaluated based on tests that they’ve indicated they have no faith in, and they’ve encouraged and parents are encouraging the opt-out movement. That seems to have grown over the last couple of years. ... But I’m glad the governor’s involved, because he’s got the biggest bully pulpit in the state.”

Marcellino said that Senate Republicans would also continue pushing for the education investment tax credit, which would encourage donations to private as well as public schools. Cardinal Timothy Dolan has championed the measure in recent years, and it has drawn bipartisan support. But during the 2015 session, the Assembly did not pass it and the Legislature instead boosted funding for private schools by $250 million.

“We did a lot for parochial schools this year,” Nolan said. “I think we’ve really done right by our parochial schools and it’s a substantial amount of money, and we’ll see happens next. With the governor’s initiative, you’d have to ask him about whether it’s coming back or not.”

Another hot-button issue that will be back again next year is mayoral control of New York City’s schools. Senate Republicans last year ensured that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of the city’s schools would only be extended for 12 months, even though his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had been given a seven-year period to work with.

“I certainly support the mayor,” Nolan said. “I would make it permanent or give him a long period of time, you know, sunset it with a seven-year period or something like that. We’re going to keep working on that too.”

Marcellino suggested that the brief renewal period was linked to de Blasio’s opposition to charter schools. The mayor has been viewed as a foe of the charter school movement, while Cuomo has sided with charter advocates. Last year the state raised the city’s charter school cap to 50.

“I think the mayor has made some comments and got himself into a bit of a conflict with the charter school people and I can understand from the union’s perspective what their concerns are relative to the charter schools, but a lot of communities want charter schools and appreciate charter schools, and they’re viable in some cases,” Marcellino said. “They do a job. So they’re worth a discussion. They’re worth looking at. And rejecting them out of hand, I don’t think is a good idea.”

ONLY DREAMING?


In recent years, Democratic lawmakers have pushed to insert the Dream Act into the state budget, hoping to force it through by attaching it to the annual spending package. Gov. Andrew Cuomo did just that this year, but after he pulled it out mid-session, supporters are pushing to put it back in the budget next year – and leave it there.

“The budget is a document that impacts both sides of the aisle, and both sides of the aisle have priorities for the budget process,” said state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a New York City Democrat who has championed the measure. “That would make it easier to pass the Dream Act. It’s also a fiscal matter because there’s a cost, so it should be included in the budget.”

The bill would let some young immigrants living in the country illegally to qualify for financial aid to attend college in New York. While it has widespread support among Democrats, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly shot down the legislation. During debate before a Senate vote in 2014, Republicans argued that the state should not spend money at the expense of U.S. citizens struggling with the rising cost of higher education.

“We’ve made it very clear that we’re not doing the Dream Act,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said earlier this year. “Republicans have argued taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund incentives for students in the country illegally.”

Despite the lack of movement in the Senate, Democrats say they are optimistic that next year could be the year the bill finally becomes law. Some observers say that the Republicans’ opposition to the Dream Act played well with voters in upstate districts, but Espaillat said that the higher – and younger and more diverse – turnout expected during the presidential election could help the bill’s chances in Albany.

“You will find that things like the $15 minimum wage has a 60 percent approval rating across the board,” Espaillat said. “I think next year with the presidential election that the pendulum will swing more towards the left. So it will probably be beneficial for Republicans to be more moderate and support pieces of legislation like the minimum wage and perhaps the Dream Act that have broader appeal.”