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New York State School Boards Association's David Albert discusses Governor Hochul's education priorities for 2024

Appearing at Albany's Tech Valley High, the Democrat signed legislation she says will help high school students succeed — both in and out of the classroom.
Dave Lucas
Governor Kathy Hochul speaks at Albany's Tech Valley High (WAMC file photo)

New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivered her State of the State address this week, outlining her vision for the 2024 legislative session.

Lobbying groups and champions for a variety of causes are paying close attention as the Democrat prepares to deliver her budget address on Tuesday.

Among them is the New York State School Boards Association, which advocates for public school districts across the state.

WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with NYSSBA’s David Albert about the governor’s goals for the new year.

So, I think we have a positive feeling about this session and about the year. The governor identified a number of important priorities for schools. I mean, she began by mentioning foundation aid, which is the basic operating aid that the state provides to school districts. And we finally achieved full funding of foundation aid. It was supposed to take four years, it took 16 years. And thanks to Governor Hochul and the legislature, schools are now receiving their full funding under foundation aid. We hope to see that continue, obviously, next year in the 2024-25 budget. That will be very important, but certainly, that is a critical, critical issue for schools. We also saw the governor talk about some very important initiatives for schools, mental health being one and mental health-based clinics and schools, as well as literacy instruction. All things that are very important. And so I think the governor has set the session off on a good, positive tone.

So let's start off by speaking about the mental health services that you mentioned, school based mental health services. The governor wants to provide resources to school so every district in the state, any school that wants, one can open a school-based mental health clinic. Could you give me a picture of the disparities there? Do you have any numbers or an idea of how many schools are actually lacking this kind of service?

Yeah, so we don't have numbers, you know, per se, as far as how many districts have the school-based mental health clinics. We know that under the governor's proposal, any school that wants to establish one would be able to. Also have to remember that school districts employ school psychologists, counsel workers, sorry, counselors and social workers, who are also there to address any mental health issues that students face. So, it is obviously a concern. We've seen a number of alarming statistics come out in the last couple of years, one was by the CDC. In a report issued recently, they identified about 40% of young people experienced some form of mental health symptoms, whether it's sadness or depression. We know that the Surgeon General has issued an advisory on the impact of social media activity on mental health. And often we see some of these concerns play out in terms of chronic absenteeism with students. So, it is a critical, critical issue. And we believe that obviously, there's going to be different approaches and different school districts. The school-based mental health clinic may be a good approach for some districts. It may be other districts will want to hire staff that are district employees. And the idea of making these mental health clinics available to provide startup funding, as the governor is proposing to enhance reimbursement rates for school-based mental health services, which is very important. We think that that's a very positive development.

Now, of course, you'd mentioned foundation aid earlier and funding. These are positions that will need to be potentially funded long-term. So, when it comes to startup programs like this what NYSSBA expect in future budget years when it comes to making sure that these positions are filled and that these services are offered?

Yeah, and that's a critical point, because oftentimes, we do see programs from either the state or federal government, you know, grant programs, that provide school districts with seed funding or startup funding for initiative, but then the funding dries up after a few years. And we're actually seeing a little bit of that now with the federal pandemic aid, which expires this school year. So, in terms of foundation aid, it's important for schools, obviously, to have the flexibility that they need to be able to make decisions about, you know, do we want to hire more school psychologists or more counselors or social workers. That foundation aid piece is really critical, because it is pretty much unrestricted operating aid to schools. So, if they want to hire teachers, if they want to hire school psychologists, they can do that. It's not, you know, earmarked toward a particular type of expense, such as a building, building aid or transportation aid, are earmarked for specific purposes. So, the foundation a piece is really critical. At the end of the day, probably the most important thing that the state does to help school districts is to adequately fund them. And that allows them to be able to make the decisions they need about how they want to staff the districts.

So earlier you had mentioned reading proficiency. The governor has proposed this initiative called the Back to Basics Initiative and it's basically a reading plan that the governor says will really get down to fundamentals and make sure that there's a fresh look at the science of reading and getting more professionals involved in reading science and teaching. How do you feel about this program? And it's a little more complicated than what I just said, but what do you think of this Back to Basics approach?

Yeah, so there are a number of districts that are doing this already. And really, we're talking about phonics instruction. I mean, it's a little more complicated than that. But just to boil it down, it's really phonics as an approach to literacy, and the governor is proposing to train about 20,000 additional teachers and teaching assistants in these types of instructional strategies, and provide about $10 million for doing that. So, again, you know, there are a number of districts that are doing this. It certainly makes sense to train teachers and proven strategies that actually do effectively improve literacy. We also have to remember that at the end of the day, school boards and local districts are responsible for curriculum. And we want to make sure that they have the necessary flexibility that they need to be able to implement programs that work for students. We know that not every student learns, not every student is necessarily going to be responsive to phonics. It is an effective strategy, but it may not be effective for everyone. So we just want to make sure that schools have that, you know, kind of toolkit, if you will, in terms of instructional strategy. And it is important, you can't really overstate the importance of early grade literacy. Because everything builds on that. Even mathematics. By the time a student gets to middle school, mathematics becomes not arithmetic, but word problems and word problems require literacy and understanding what's being asked. And so, those literacy skills that are developed in early grades, grades three, grades four, grades five, are so critical, so we want to certainly make sure that our teachers are using the most effective strategies. And the governor's approach certainly sounds like a sound approach. And we'll have to see what the actual language looks like in the legislative drafts that she presents to the legislature.

Now, the governor is also making efforts, proposing efforts to get more students enrolled in SUNY and CUNY colleges. Do you think that that could help address a teacher shortage? Because that's something that's being felt across the state is not having enough people who are actually properly trained to take teaching roles that need to be filled.

Yeah, so certainly, that can help. And, you know, obviously, we just saw a college here locally, the College of Saint Rose announced that it would be closing, and that is a school that has a strong teacher prep program. So that, you know, certainly is a blow to teacher preparation programs. But yes, you know, certainly SUNY, and the City University programs are strong programs in teacher prep. I think one of the things, you know, there's a lot of ideas that have been tossed around to kind of improve the situation with respect to the teacher shortage. I think that one of the things we have to keep in mind is that there are certain areas, certain instructional areas that really are experiencing more problems than others, and those areas tend to be bilingual education, English as a second language, English as a new language. Those  are important, and especially as we see more students, perhaps, you know, migrants coming into the school system, who may need that type of instruction. But yet, we're not seeing schools, colleges and universities actually produce more teachers who are certified in those areas. So, we do need to focus on in our college prep programs, teaching…we need teachers in areas where there are deficiencies. And so, we've seen across the state, an increase in the number of English language learner students. But yet, a we've only seen about, I think, in the 2020-2021 school year, there were only about 3.2% teaching candidates that were prepared by colleges and universities, in the area of English as a second language. So, we need to try to encourage would-be-teachers to go into some of these areas where there are shortages. We also see shortages in the areas of math and science, in some instances, special education, and career and technical education. And that's an area that if we look at what the Regents are doing now, they're re -evaluating high school graduation requirements. And there is going to likely be a greater focus on career and technical education, because about a third of students who graduate from high school, go directly into workforce prep programs, or go right into the workforce. So, we certainly need to make sure that if we're going to focus more on CTE, career and technical education, that we have an adequate supply of teachers who are certified in those areas.

Now, David, when it comes to workforce training and workforce prep, what does NYSSBA think about the advancement of a AI technology? There's a lot of discussion about how careers will be phased out, because this is the latest and newest form of automation in a way.  Does that increase the need for more technical skills and training programs in school districts?

Yeah, so that's a great question. And the short answer is yes. And if you look at what the governor is proposing, she is proposing to make New York State really put the state at the forefront of AI development, largely leveraging our colleges and universities. But of course, we know that the pipeline of students that are going to go into those colleges and universities, who are going to work in the area of AI, they're coming from our public education system. And so, we do need to make sure that we are adequately instructing students in in the STEM subjects, the math and the science. AI involves a lot of math involves a lot of statistics. And so, we're going to have to make sure that students are prepared to take on those subjects if they're going to work in artificial intelligence. So, we definitely see this as an opportunity for our students here in the public schools to focus on STEM subjects, those who are interested in going into AI, and then, you know, obviously provide that pipeline into those colleges and universities where, no doubt, amazing things can be developed using AI.

David, is there anything that the governor did not hit on in her state of the state message that you were hoping to see?

So, it really wasn't heavy on education, per se, the only specific education proposal that she brought up was literacy. And of course, mental health does relate to youth. So, in terms of other issues, I think there are concerns right now among school board members and school districts about the implementation of the zero-emission vehicle, zero emission buses or electric buses requirement. We know that the state has a plan that all new school buses that are sold in New York State must be zero emission vehicles by 2027, which is really just three years away. And all school buses on the road must be zero emission by 2035. And while we obviously support the goal of reducing emissions, there's no doubt about that, I think there are questions and concerns about implementation schedule. I know that a school bus, a typical diesel-powered bus costs about $100,000. A zero-emission vehicle or a electric school bus is about $400,000. We have an estimated 50,000 school buses here in New York state. So, you can do the math on that. And look at what the cost of that is. Districts need voter approval for bus purchases. And also there are some questions about, you know, the staying power. How long are these buses going to be able to run? And what will be adequate charging stations? So, I think, you know, we fully support the environmental goal. But we do have some concerns about the implementation timeline. And I think that we will probably be looking to the legislature to revisit this issue and see if there might be ways of extending the runway to implementation so that we can actually do this right

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.