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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

NYS students deserve equal foundation

One of the things we take for granted in America is that some schools are better than others.

When my family moved after my eighth-grade year, it was partly so my sisters and I could attend better schools — schools with more extra-curricular activities, more electives and more of an emphasis on academic achievement and college prep.

Of course, I found plenty to criticize about my new school. For one thing, it wasn’t as good as our rival district, one of the richest in the state. Why was our rival school so wealthy? Because it was home to an Ivy League university and world-class hospital, and many of the students who went there were the children of doctors and professors.

In retrospect, I can see that my own high school was solidly middle class, and it offered more than the high school in my old, working-class district. I can also see that the kids in my high school weren’t any nicer or smarter than the kids in my old district. But I got a better education than they did, because I went to a better school.

Was I more deserving? No, of course not. Our educational system just treated me as if I was.
Every so often, someone offers up a critique of this system, and on Tuesday night, I headed out to hear what Schenectady Superintendent Laurence Spring had to say about it.

Spring plans to file a civil rights complaint alleging that the state gives more money to predominantly white school districts, leaving less for districts with high concentrations of minority students, such as Schenectady.

A big part of his argument hinges on the fact that the city school district receives only 54 percent of what it’s supposed to under the state’s own foundation aid formula. Not only is this the lowest percentage in the region, it’s one of the lowest percentages in the state.

Few districts receive all the foundation aid that they are supposed to. Locally, North Colonie is also near the bottom of the list, receiving 62 percent of the aid it is entitled to. Shenendehowa receives about 69 percent, Mohonasen about 74 percent, Scotia-Glenville about 85 percent, and Burnt Hills about 89 percent. Saratoga Springs receives more foundation aid than it is supposed to — about 106 percent.

Nothing against the children of the Gilboa-Conesville Central School District — the school at the top of the chart — but it’s not really clear to me why they deserve 128 percent of their foundation aid, while the children of Schenectady deserve just 54 percent. How much is the district shorted? About $62 million. If Schenectady received, say, 85 percent of the aid the district is entitled to, as many districts do, it would be doing much, much better.

It’s probably worth emphasizing that Spring didn’t invent the foundation aid formula. It was developed in 2007 by the governor and state Legislature in response to a court ruling that found New York’s school funding system violated schoolchildren’s constitutional right to a sound basic education. As a result, the formula is designed to take the needs of students, as well as the fiscal health of a community, into account when allocating aid.

Because Schenectady has a lot of poor kids and a relative dearth of wealth, it is entitled to a lot of money under the formula. Spring is blunt about why this is. Poor kids, he said, cost more to educate. Because they’re so far behind their middle- and upper-class peers from the moment they start school, they have more catching up to do.

A raft of research supports what Spring is saying. In the 2004 book, “Class and Schools,” former New York Times education columnist Richard Rothstein writes that the achievement gap starts early.

He notes that one study found that “on average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age three, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50 percent greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children.”

This is a huge issue, and one that will cost money to solve, money that might, if Spring’s civil rights complaint is successful, come from fixing the state’s broken system for awarding foundation aid.

But I wouldn’t expect to hear a peep about any of this from the Cuomo administration. The governor and the state Education Department have decided to pour their energies into implementing the Common Core — the new, rigorous academic standards all New York students are expected to meet — and selling the false promise that tough new requirements will lead to better educational outcomes.
Sensible people might wonder at the state’s magical thinking. How will making school harder help students who are already struggling to pass?

The short answer is that it won’t.

It won’t do anything to help people like Wayne Best, one of the parents who signed on to the civil rights complaint last week. When I talked to Best, he spoke of large classrooms and a lack of extra help for his 11-year-old son, who is falling behind in reading.

“He’s barely getting by,” Best said.

Particularly eye-opening, he said, was the chart showing Schenectady receives the lowest percentage of foundation aid in the region.

“I’m surprised,” he said, “that other districts get so much.”

Some schools are just better than others. It’s time that changed.

Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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