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PPI Series: The Common Core Standards Represent “the Best of Our Knowledge”

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part two of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Ever since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan called for state leaders to raise expectations for their education systems, the issue of state standards has been part of the education policy conversation.  Over the decades that followed, each state developed its own standards, including New York, which approved “learning standards” in seven content areas in 1996.  But this patchwork led to frustration among policymakers, who wanted to be able to compare student data across states in order to determine the relative effectiveness of their schools and education policies.  State-by-state variation in standards also meant that American students faced vast differences in educational expectations depending on where they happened to live. Some states intentionally set low standards, in a so-called “race to the bottom,” so that they could claim that a higher number of their students were achieving proficiency.

Thus, in 2009, governors and state education commissioners from 51 states and territories agreed to create shared standards in ELA and math.  A team of content experts, education researchers, teachers, and higher education faculty was assembled to begin the development process.  New York contributed more experts to the K-12 standards development teams than any other state; these included certified teachers, representatives of the teacher’s unions, and SUNY faculty. In March 2010, the National Governors Association released a draft for public feedback, and more than 10,000 individual comments were received.  New York had more than 570 commenters—including parents, higher education faculty, and over 300 teachers—far outnumbering the participation in any other state except California. The final standards were released in June 2010, and over the months that followed, individual states further reviewed them and decided whether to adopt them.

Ultimately, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core standards.  Because the Common Core standards were developed through a state-led, open and collaborative process that drew on the best available expertise, they can truly be said to embody “the best of our knowledge.”  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in analyzing education standards, describes the features that make the Common Core standards so much better than pre-existing state standards:

They are admirably aligned with rigorous research (on early reading instruction, for example); explicit about the quality and complexity of reading and writing that should be expected of students every year; very solid on arithmetic as a clear priority in the elementary grades; ambitious in aiming for college and career readiness by the end of twelfth grade; and relatively jargon-free.

Moreover, expectations are now consistent across more than 40 states and are no longer dependent on a student’s zip code.

Yet every passing week seems to bring a news story about another state in which the Common Core is under attack.  Many of these stories are based on bills that were introduced by state legislators but ultimately failed to become law, or lawsuits sponsored by interest groups who misleadingly paint the standards and testing consortia as forcible intrusions by the Obama administration into state and local matters.  While it is true that federal Race to the Top grants provided financial incentives that hastened adoption of the standards and financed the testing consortia, state participation in those programs was voluntary.  The state-driven common standards movement pre-dates Race to the Top, and most states welcomed the influx of federal funding in support of their efforts.

The Common Core standards are in effect in more than 40 states, including every state that originally adopted them except Oklahoma and South Carolina.  In response to political controversy, some states have re-branded the standards by changing the name but have quietly retained the substance.  More than a dozen states, including New York, have adapted the standards by adding supplementary language—a move that was anticipated by the original adoption agreement under the so-called “15 percent rule.” Numerous states, including New York, have postponed or pulled back from full-scale participation in the Common Core testing consortia, while retaining the standards themselves.  Several states, including New York, have launched processes to review the standards and associated tests.

All of this has done little to roll back the Common Core standards, and it is arguable that the additional scrutiny and fine-tuning at the state level will ultimately strengthen the standards and improve their implementation.

To read part one in the series, please click here.

PPI Series: Common Core: Here to Stay?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part one of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Each passing week seems to bring another negative story about “Common Core”:  viral social media posts show nonsensical math homework assignments that stump parents; presidential candidates and state legislators across the nation grab headlines by vowing to repeal the standards; and Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force has recommended modifying the standards and associated policies. Does all this mean that the Common Core is going away? And does it even matter?

Over the past five years, at the same time that the media have been reporting controversies and protests, the Common Core standards were taking root firmly in classrooms across the nation. The New York Common Core Task Force’s recent review of the standards has yielded a set of recommendations for change, and some of those changes are considered quite significant by teachers and parents. Most notably, the Board of Regents has adopted the Task Force’s recommendation to remove any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to New York’s grades 3-8 ELA and math tests until the 2019-2020 school year. As for the standards themselves, the Task Force explicitly affirmed that New York must maintain high educational standards and “build upon the foundation established by the Common Core standards,” while acknowledging that some changes should be considered to ensure that the standards in the early grades are developmentally appropriate. The New York State Education Department has pledged to use feedback received from parents and teachers familiar with the standards to “identify where and what changes are needed to make New York’s Common Core ELA and Math Learning Standards stronger.”

In the coming weeks, this blog mini-series will argue that higher standards are important to the economic future of our state and our citizens, and will take you on a guided tour through the many reasons why I believe the Common Core is here to stay.

A thought on education

As voters across New York State head to the polls to approve or reject their school district’s budget, we thought it would be appropriate to share some freshly released data on education spending. According to Congressional Quarterly’s just released 2016 State Rankings, New York had the ninth lowest teacher/pupil ratio in the nation as of the 2014 school year. New York’s ratio of 13 students per teacher is significantly better than California’s, the worst state on the list – at 24.3 students per teacher. Not surprisingly, New York ranked first in teacher salary, coming in at an average of $77,628, $25,000 more than the 25th ranked state. Despite the low teacher/pupil ratio, and high salaries, New York remains toward the middle or bottom of the pack in reading and math proficiency (CQ ranked 4th and 8th grade students for the 2015 testing year). Adding to the bad news, our state ranked 39th in public high school graduation rates for the 2013 school year, at just 76.8 percent -well below the nationwide average of 81.4 percent. We also ranked near the top in both state and local government education expenditures and per capita state and local government spending, coming in at 3rd and 5th respectively.

So, what does all this mean? It is our belief that the status quo is not working, and these numbers bear that out. The time has long since passed for New York to stop throwing more and more money at education without seeing better results. In our mind, this only highlights the need for elected officials to remain committed to a strong Property Tax Cap and resist calls to weaken it. The tax cap is working, now we need to pass the accompanying mandate relief and curriculum enhancements to ensure local governments remain solvent and our students are adequately prepared for the job opportunities that will be available to them. If you’re looking for proof that the combination of a tax cap and a strong commitment to higher standards equals results, look no further than our neighbors in Massachusetts. The Bay State, which enacted a property tax cap in 1980, three decades before New York, and led the way on higher standards, ranks at or near the top in virtually every CQ category. New York should join Massachusetts as an educational leader and not succumb to the voices fighting to maintain the status quo. One of the best and easiest decisions we believe state policymakers can make to improve our state’s education rankings is to provide additional funding and resources to innovative public education models like P-TECH and charter schools.

If the P-TECH program is not something you are familiar with, we encourage you to visit their website to learn more. You can also go to www.bcnys.org and search P-TECH for additional resources and information on this innovative and demonstrably successful education alternative, and read a FAQ for employers.

Weakening the tax cap?

We’ve made no secret of our support of the two percent Property Tax Cap, in our opinion, the tax cap – coupled with the self-imposed cap on state spending, have been the signature achievements of the Cuomo administration and have helped correct years of outrageous spending increases and rising property taxes. Despite these achievements, the voices calling for a weakening of the tax cap continue to grow louder.

In today’s Newsday, school officials are quoted as saying the two percent cap is putting the squeeze on their budgets, and they argue the two percent cap is really more like .2 percent, since inflation continues to be so low.

The change they are asking for is subtle, but substantive. They want lawmakers to make the tax cap a hard two percent, instead of currently capping increases at the lower of two percent, or the consumer price index (CPI). They say the lack of growth in the CPI is putting a strain on school budgets and forcing them to tighten their belts in ways the law never intended. It is our belief that the real “strain” does not come from the fact that the CPI has kept the tax increases significantly below two percent, it’s that municipalities continue to be held hostage by antiquated laws that make it far too easy for the teacher’s unions to achieve sizeable yearly pay increases well above the rate of inflation.

At a time when regular worker salaries remain stagnant, and overall economic growth is weak, it makes all the sense in the world that unions should play by the same rules. We hope lawmakers continue to recognize that the tax cap is a tremendous achievement and resist calls to weaken it.

Health Republic: What went wrong and why?

Crain’s New York recently published a terrific article laying out the reasons how and why Health Republic turned into such a catastrophic failure.

From the article:

“On Sept. 25, 2015, Health Republic was ordered to shut down by the same state and federal agencies that had given the insurer their regulatory blessings just two years earlier. In 20 months, from January 2014 through August 2015—when it became clear the insurer couldn’t survive—Health Republic had accumulated tens of millions of dollars in losses. The company was ordered to close its doors effective Nov. 30, leaving 209,000 enrollees to scramble for new coverage.

A three-month investigation by Crain’s New York Business shows that, from its conception in 2012, Health Republic was on unsteady ground. Crain’s found that management deliberately set low premium rates as a marketing ploy to attract customers. Regulators approved those rates but then wouldn’t let the company raise them after it became clear that the prices jeopardized the company’s solvency. 

To put it more bluntly; Health Republic’s failure was the result of negligent leadership and incompetent government oversight.

Again, from the article:

“By several accounts, DFS did not monitor Health Republic closely, aside from handling initial consumer complaints. It wasn’t until early 2015 that DFS began demanding monthly financial reports from Health Republic instead of only quarterly and year-end financial statements. By then, the company realized it had lost $77.5 million in 2014, an amount it had still hoped would be covered by the federal backstop. Meanwhile, Health Republic’s executives tried to reduce losses. They stopped selling policies in several upstate counties where claims were particularly high. The company also tried to interact directly with providers to manage patient care that generated expensive claims but was blocked by the restrictive contracts that had been signed with MagnaCare.”

Even now, months after the failure, the fallout continues. The real question is: What will New York State lawmakers and policy officials due to ensure that the regulators accomplish their primary mission of maintaining carrier solvency so this doesn’t happen again?

New York’s Economic Outlook: Dead last

A new report by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) finds New York ranks dead last in economic outlook among the 50 states.

From the report: “Rich States, Poor States examines the latest movements in state economic growth. The data ranks the 2016 economic outlook of states using fifteen equally weighted policy variables, including various tax rates, regulatory burdens and labor policies. The ninth edition examines trends over the last few decades that have helped or hurt states’ economies.

Used by state lawmakers across America since 2008, Rich States, Poor States: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index, is authored by economist Dr. Arthur B. Laffer; Stephen Moore, distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation; and Jonathan Williams, vice president of the ALEC Center for State Fiscal Reform.”

This is the third year in a row that New York came in last place.

A closer look at Buffalo job numbers

Perhaps you’ve seen the news recently about a rather startling revision of employment  numbers in the Buffalo/Niagara region. In case you missed it, here is the gist: preliminary numbers said the region added 8,900 jobs in calendar year 2015. That figure represented a 1.6 percent increase that would have been the strongest job growth the area had seen since 1999. However, when the revised figures came out, what was once 6,100 new jobs, turned into 2,900 new jobs. And that 1.6 percent job growth rate we just mentioned, it plummeted to a disappointing 0.5 percent, well below the statewide and national growth rates.

Further adding to the confusion, John Slenker, the labor department’s regional economist in Buffalo, thinks the newly announced fourth-quarter slump is overstated, and the numbers will be revised AGAIN a year from now.

That same story suggested that Slenker’s more optimistic view is backed up by local unemployment data, which shows that the Buffalo Niagara jobless rate has steadily declined for nearly four straight years since peaking at 9.4 percent in February 2012. It dropped to 5.7 percent in January.

And while those numbers are accurate, they do not tell the full story.

Consider the following, from 2012 thru 2015:

  • Erie County’s unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent to 5.4 percent
  • At the time the county’s labor force fell by 12,000, from 461,000 to 449,000, a drop of 2.6 percent.
  • Total employment grew by just 1,800 positions, or 0.4 percent.
  • Compared to 2008 job figures, jobs in 2015 were DOWN by 22,000, or 5 percent below pre-recession levels.

Adding all that together and saying it a different way, of the 38,400 Erie County residents unemployed in 2012, only 1,800 got jobs, 12,000 left town or quit looking, and 24,000 remain jobless.

These data show a continuing story of slow economic growth in upstate New York. New York needs to make its economy more competitive for investment and job growth statewide. Small business tax cuts, elimination of energy assessments, and meaningful workers’ compensation reform are all part of the economic remedy. The last thing New York needs is a massive increase in wage costs, which is what the proposed $15 minimum wage, and its accompanying $15.7 billion dollar statewide price tag, would bring.

The Comp is too #$@% high

This morning, the Albany Times Union reported something that employers around the state have known for far too long, workers’ compensation costs are terribly high and continue to rise. New York consistently ranks within the top four most expensive states in the nation for comp costs. While the article quotes the administration as saying that they are open to ideas on cost-controlling reform, The Business Council has endlessly advocated to the board and the administration not only the need for reform, but the specific remedies that would cut costs while guaranteeing the best care for injured workers.

From the article: “Despite a recent drop following the 2007 reforms, costs quickly went back up and are now 20 percent higher than before the changes. And while the average workers’ compensation cost per employee was 40 percent higher than the national average before 2007, it is now projected to be even higher at 2.5 times the national average.

On average, the cost of sustaining the system, which is financed largely by assessments on employers, will run $1,000 per employee each year. What happened? While there are lots of factors, critics like Ginsburg place much of the blame on the way claimant lawyers have been able to use the reforms to their advantage. One of the big changes was an increase in payments to injured workers.

While they used to be capped at $400 per week, that was raised to $840. In exchange, workers gave up lifetime payments and instead get money for a fixed period of time which maxes out at 10 years, with some exceptions. But the timetable doesn’t start until a case is fully resolved, or the injury is “scheduled” in workers comp parlance. Payments, however go out during this negotiating period and these can easily run for years due to the various appeals mechanisms in place. Final determinations can now take six or more years.

Unfortunately, the demands of the special interests of unions and trial lawyers have ruled the day. It appears that, for now, their zealous protection of the status quo (which earns them hundreds of millions of dollars annually), will continue to balloon costs until lawmakers decide that enough is enough.

Congress worried about overtime rules

As we all sit and wait for the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hours Division to release the new final rules regarding the salary level for exemptions from overtime pay, some in Congress are beginning to worry about how these new rules will affect their staff.

As you know, the proposed rules would raise the minimum salary level for exempt employees from its current $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to perhaps as much as $970 per week ($50,440 per year).  (Our discussion of the proposed rules can be found in the link above).

According to an article in Bloomberg BNA, some members of Congress wonder how their budgets can accommodate such a dramatic rise in salaries. Congressional staffs are often made up of young, exempt, professionals who are paid less than the proposed $50,440 threshold and often work in excess of 40 hours per week. Many House Democrats who favor the expansion of overtime protections to employees in the private sector are concerned they won’t have enough money to maintain their current staffing levels.

Once the rules are finalized, all New York employers will be scrambling to adjust their budgets to reflect the new reality. Unfortunately, unlike Congress, private employers cannot just “appropriate” more money for themselves. Important decisions will need to be made regarding staffing levels and pay practices.

For questions on how these new rules may affect you, please contact Frank Kerbein, Director, Center for Human Resources at frank.kerbein@bcnys.org or at (800) 332-2117.

Small businesses are big business for New York State

On the same day dozens of small business owners from across New York rallied at the state Capitol, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released a report highlighting the nearly $1 trillion in annual revenues small businesses generate for the state.

According to the report: “New York’s small businesses generated $954 billion in receipts in 2012, the latest figures available, accounting for approximately 43 percent of all business receipts in New York, according to DiNapoli’s report.

Among the more than 455,000 businesses in New York, more than 451,000 are small businesses.  Almost two-thirds of small businesses have fewer than five employees. More than 80 percent have fewer than ten employees.

Firms with 20 to 99 employees comprised approximately one-third of the total small business employment with over 1.2 million employees. The larger firms (those with 100 to 499 employees) had the highest average payroll per employee, nearly $56,000 per year.”

This report should serve as a stark reminder to lawmakers of the myriad of benefits small businesses bring to their communities as they contemplate a 67 percent increase in the state’s minimum wage.

That wage increase would cost anywhere from 200k to 600k and further erode the job prospects and opportunities for growth among our state’s poorest citizens.

Please visit www.minimumwagerealitycheck.org to learn more about this misguided proposal and to join our growing coalition against the $15 an hour minimum wage.