New York's state budget is due in a little over a week, and questions about funding for education, health care, infrastructure and other major spending areas remain unanswered. Earlier this month, City & State's Fernanda Nunes spoke with state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about the funding levels she would like to see for New York's schools and the governor's less generous proposal, as well as as what her department is doing to protect the rights of transgender students.
C&S: The state Board of Regents requested a $1.6 billion increase in state education funding, while the governor proposed a $769 million increase. What would the lower amount of funding mean?
ME: The budget that the governor puts out is just the first step in the process of developing a budget, and clearly the Regents, and the budget proposal that the state Education Department commissioner and Regents put together, is a reflection of the goals that we have. So I think it’s important to always understand that the process is really important in what ultimately ends up being the final budget by April 1.
The Regents budget included $1.6 billion for school funding, the primary portion of that was $1.25 billion for the Foundation Aid phase-in. Each of these things are goals that both the governor and the Regents have towards a particular level of funding they think should be in place – that doesn’t always happen immediately, but it will always become a conversation. So by April 1, both the Assembly and the Senate will weigh in with their budget proposals and there will be a compromise somewhere in between.
Our Regents budget is very focused on increasing equity for all students, across all of the state. So you know that our Foundation Aid was a $1.25 billion increase, but we also had specific requests for early learning programs as a result of our blue-ribbon Early Childhood Work Group. We also had expansion of CTE for $25 million, and those career and technical education programs are very closely tied to the governor’s proposal on infrastructure and what needs to be done in the state. To be able to really work at infrastructure, you need to have skilled workers. And we have jobs that are available. We’ve got to make sure we have students that can fill those jobs when they leave high school or when they leave our community colleges.
We also asked for increases in our reimbursement aid, like transportation, special education services and other things. So the budget that is proposed, whether the governor’s budget or the Regents budget, those are just the beginning points to develop the ultimate budget.
So we’re very focused on areas that we think need to have an influx of support so that we can provide equity for students across the state.
C&S: New York City Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s most recent education budget is “disrespectful.” Do you agree?
ME: As I said, it’s part of a process. And as the governor puts together his proposal, there are connections to a number of other areas that relate to education funding, and I think that what we need to do is work together to come up with a compromised budget that reflects the Assembly, the Senate and other stakeholders’ concerns.
Ultimately, the Regents, and the commissioner, myself, the chancellor, are very, very focused that we are making sure that we are pushing the agenda for equity and providing opportunities across the entire state.
C&S: How does the experience as University of the State of New York president shape your role as commissioner, and vice versa?
ME: The Board of Regents and the state Education Department set the overall education policy for the state. And as my role is developing, I clearly see the opportunities that come from pulling together different areas where the commissioner and the Regents have oversight.
Most people think that the Regents are working solely on the K-12 schools and environment, but that’s really not the case. We have an interconnected system of educational services across many areas. For instance, we do have oversight of over 7,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools, but we also oversee our public and private colleges and universities. We have proprietary schools, which are for-profit schools, and under the umbrella of the University of the State of New York. We also have oversight of libraries, so there are 7,000 libraries we control and have connections to 750 museums, state archives and besides that, public broadcasting in other areas.
But the other one that I think is the most unique is the idea that the state Education Department also is the entity that provides licenses for over 750,000 professionals in the state of New York. Things like professionals in the areas of pharmacy, architecture, accounting, nursing. So all of those areas are certified, as well as public schools teachers, counselors and administrators.
The major thing that I think is really critical is that these are not just jointed areas, and that we are connecting them together to serve all the citizens of New York state. So when you (think) about it, all of those areas touch New Yorkers’ lives almost from birth to the end of a person’s life. It’s really an opportunity for us to connect things that are happening in various sectors within (the state Education Department) and the purview that we have in those areas. So it really is helping us making those connections across the state.
C&S: You recently talked about the rights of transgender students in New York schools. What can be done in regard to LGBT and other minority students to ensure their safety?
ME: I think the most important thing is that every student has rights to be safe in school, no matter what their race, their gender identity, their sexual preference is. And it’s our responsibility to create learning environments that are safe and welcoming to everyone.
I was most concerned with the recent decision by the federal Department of Education to no longer investigate civil rights complaints from transgender students. That announcement has no bearing upon schools’ independent duties here in New York because we have laws and regulations that protect transgender students and ensure that they have equal access to school resources and programming. That is the New York state’s Dignity for All Students Act, the DASA. It expressly prohibits bullying, discrimination, harassment on school property or in school functions and it’s very specific for transgender students.
So I think we have to, as we move forward, always underscore the importance of all students having the right to feel safe and to have no discrimination against them in their school site.
State Attorney General Schneiderman and I have been partners in putting emphasis on that, and the importance of representing all students and people across the state.
Our guidance has encouraged districts to take proactive steps to ensure that transgender and gender non-conforming students experience that safe and welcoming learning environment, and we have continually underscored the importance of maintaining that learning environment under the DASA law that is welcoming to all. We have to continually work to make sure that all of our schools are providing that kind of learning environment.