In 1866, Gideon John Tucker a Surrogate Judge of New York, wrote in a decision: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”
My GPS was guiding me to a high school on Long Island, when the gadget crowed, “You have arrived,” I thought there must be a mistake – looked more like a college campus. Multiple building, a natatorium, a gymnasium building, a massive one-story classroom building, sports fields, a large parking lot; I found the room for the meeting and chatted with a parent, I wondered at the grandeur of the school and mentioned the poor state of school facilities in New York City. I got an earful,
“Do you know what we pay in school taxes, over $20,000 a year; you want us to pay for your schools? Let the city tax the billionaires in the city and leave us alone.”
That, my readers is the essence of the school funding conundrum.
The New York State fiscal year is April 1 to March 31, and, due to the beginning of Passover, the budget must be in place by March 29th. The governor, in his executive budget sets the budget cap, the Assembly and the Senate passed one-house budgets a few weeks ago, the “three-men-in-a-room,” the governor, Carl Heastie, the leader of the Assembly and John Flanagan, the leader of the Senate, with Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the eight democrats who caucus with the republicans, on the edge of the conversation, negotiate a state budget.
A major part of the budget talks is the state aid to education.
Dollars for schools come from three sources: the federal contribution, mostly Title 1, the total amount is set through federal legislation; the actual dollars are divvied up by formula depending on poverty metrics – around 8% of state education dollars.
In New York State the largest segment of school aid comes from local contributions based on property taxes, the state has a 2% cap on local poverty tax increases: with the exception of the Big Five (Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Yonkers and New York City) the other school budgets are voted on in May in the 700 school districts across the state.
The state contribution is set by the final budget, governor-legislature negotiations and the total amount is widely publicized. The press release: are the state education dollars more or less than last year?
The state teacher union, New York State United Teachers, (NYSUT), the school boards association, and advocacy groups loudly campaign for more education dollars and target the governor, remember, the legislature may not increase the size of the proposed executive budget.
The Foundation Aid formula, at least theoretically, is supposed to equalize the disparity in local property tax-based funding. The wealth-base from district to district is varies widely: from school districts with multi-million dollar homes and school taxes north of $20,000 to school districts with industrial bases to both urban and rural districts with low tax bases. Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester have seen industries leave or disappear. For example Eastman-Kodak once employed thousands, now defunct. The hundreds of rural school districts struggle to pay heating costs with low and decreasing tax bases.
New York State is at the top the nation in per capita school funding as well as at the top of the nation in the most inequitable distributions to school districts within the state.
… in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first term, inequality in funding between poor school districts and wealthy school districts grew over $700 per pupil – from $8,024 to $8,733 – the largest gap in New York history.
Education Trust takes a deep dive into school funding; New York State is the third worst state in funding equity among districts (Read full report here).
The difference in a classroom of 25 students between a school in high tax and low tax districts is $218,325. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Read a detailed explaination here.
Rural districts are particularly at risk.
Citizens in low wealth rural counties cannot pay the needed taxes to achieve equity. The only alternatives their school districts have are to make additional cutbacks in staffing and services and/or dip into reserves. For several years school districts have already taken these steps. They cannot continue on this path and produce students educationally ready as employees and as citizens.
Commenting on twitter the total in state aid and the Foundation Aid formula Ian Rosenblum from the Education Trust avers,
Let’s do BOTH: increase state funding to high-need school districts, AND ensure equitable distribution of state/local funds within school districts. Together, these strategies get the most resources to the students with the greatest needs.
The Citizen’s Budget Commission parses the Foundation Aid Formula and is sharply critical, and emphasizes serious flaws,
When Foundation Aid was developed, lawmakers intended most school aid to flow through this program and for increases to be targeted to low-wealth districts with needy students. However, they also agreed that no district would receive less under the Foundation Aid formula than it had previously received; as a result, the formula was modified with features to hold districts harmless from any decreases. Likewise, provisions were included to ensure virtually all districts, regardless of need, would share in any increases in aggregate Foundation Aid.
Legislators in high wealth districts, primarily in the suburban areas, have effectively supported the “save harmless” provisions as well as other provisions that drive dollars to their districts, and away from the low wealth districts. The result: the high-wealth to low-wealth district dollars disparity widens each year.
Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the House of Representatives is famous for a simple political aphorism, “All politics is local.”
On March 29th, or maybe the morning of March 30th, the state legislature will begin passing the budget, and I doubt, really doubt, that the Foundation Aid formula will undergo any significant changes, the headline will be the total size of state aid.
And, let’s not forget, the highest court in the state approved the ability of the governor to add non-budgetary items to the budget. For example, in the 2014, a gubernatorial election cycle, some NYSUT locals endorsed the governor’s opponent, Zephyr Teachout, in the next budget cycle, 2015, the governor included in the budget an increase in teacher probation from three to four years as well as some pro-charter school items. NYSUT and the governor jousted for months and eventually the angst abated. The Cuomo Commission recommended Board of Regents approved moratorium on the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. Politics, politics invading the budget process!!
The budget will contain an increase in state aid, maybe, changes in the Foundation Aid formula and who knows what the governor and the legislature, if anything, will be added to the budget.
Brings to mind one of my favorite songs, I play from time to time, give a listen,