Cuomo’s proposal spotlights school aid disparities

Educators fear loss of funding 'promise'
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.

This school year, Schenectady school teachers and administrators are working with just 64 percent of what a key state funding formula says the district needs to properly educate its students.

Meanwhile, Saratoga Springs schools are working with 123 percent of what the same funding formula says that district should get.

For Schenectady schools, that was more than $6,000 less per student last year than what is called for in the state’s so-called foundation aid formula, while Saratoga Springs received more than $500 per student more than the formula stipulates.

<VIEW: Spreadsheet details for area districts>

Similar disparities are seen across the Capital Region, largely due to enrollment declines, increases in a community’s overall wealth and the state’s de facto policy of not reducing funding to districts.

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A change in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal this year would turn those disparate funding levels into the new baseline for schools funding going forward. Under Cuomo’s plan, each year, state appropriators would divvy up annual education funding increases based on updated factors of student need. But the changes would effectively eliminate the full foundation aid calculation, which has been an overriding target for many educators, activists and lawmakers. 

To some, the governor’s move represents a fundamental negation of a decade-old promise. To others, it falls in line with the governor’s broader education policy.  

“I think the governor’s whole approach to education codifies inequity,” said Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie.

But Cuomo’s team points to historic levels of education funding in New York, the highest per-student spending in the country, and the annual increases he has called for in his budget proposals. This year’s executive budget increases education spending by nearly $1 billion – roughly 4 percent.

The response to the governor’s foundation aid proposal – which one education watcher said threw “fuel on the fire” of what otherwise would have been a “boring” year in education policy – has highlighted the starkly different interpretations of how the state does and ought to fund education.

Some lawmakers, educators and advocates argue the foundation aid formula is the state’s way of determining how much each district needs to provide its students with the “sound basic education” required under the 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling. Cuomo’s team argues the state has already fulfilled the Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding targets and is not required to meet funding levels spelled out in the foundation aid formula.

This is how the foundation aid formula works: state Education Department officials identify proficient school districts across the state and determine how much money they spend per student – that’s the state’s “foundation” amount. From there, officials adjust for regional costs, student needs and each community’s ability to fund its schools. As of the most recent calculation in November, “full implementation” of the formula statewide would cost $4.3 billion.  

Last month, the state Board of Regents adopted a budget proposal that called for boosting foundation aid by more than $1.4 billion and phasing in the remainder of the $4.3 billion over the next three years.

The governor’s office denies any funding obligation exists and calls the initial promise of billions of dollars in education funding under the formula an “aspirational” target set by former Gov. Elliot Spitzer.      

“There is no past, present nor future debt owed by the state as a result of this ruling, period,” Paul Francis, deputy secretary for health and human services under Cuomo, wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed last week.

That suggestion, however, and the governor’s proposal to unwind the funding formula, has caused a stir in the education world.

Michael Rebell, an education-law scholar and attorney at the Teachers College at Columbia University, in a written response to Francis’ op-ed, said “students’ constitutional rights are obligatory, not ‘symbolic,’ or ‘aspirational.’”

“Basically what they are doing is saying the CFE (court decision) doesn’t mean anything; we don’t need a formula,” said Rebell, who is representing students and families who are suing the state.

The governor’s office and educators agree many facets of the current formula need to be updated. For instance, it still relies on 10-year-old poverty data for determining district needs.

In his proposal, the governor’s proposed funding calculation would adopt some changes recommended by the state’s Association of School Business Officials and the Regents. (Education funding in the state is projected to grow at least as fast as the rate of personal income growth.) And, Morris Peters, a Cuomo spokesman, said state budgets are always determined year-to-year and not with long-term promises of a target funding level.

“The underlying components of the foundation aid formula remain essentially the same but are updated (in Cuomo’s proposed funding plan),” Peters said. “Funding decisions are always made one year at a time.”

The lack of updated formula variables may be at least partially responsible for the disparity in funding levels between Schenectady and Saratoga Springs. (Under full foundation aid implementation, Schenectady would receive more than five times the funding per student as Saratoga Springs. Even at just 64 percent of its foundation aid funding, Schenectady still receives nearly two-and-a-half times the foundation aid per student that Saratoga receives.)

“Those formulas are predicated on data that is going on a decade old, so we don’t really know what today’s data would suggest it ought to be,” said Tim Hilker, assistant superintendent for business for Saratoga Springs School District. “There are obviously pockets of wealth, but there are also areas of poverty.”

Aside from Saratoga Springs, most of the 15 districts in the region that “on paper” are overfunded under the formula are rural districts that have lost enrollment over the past decade or more. As districts lose enrollment, the formula says they need less funding, but the state adheres to an unofficial “hold harmless” policy that prevents districts from receiving less funding from one year to the next.

Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, and the minority ranking member on the Assembly Education Committee, said he doesn’t think the current formula truly captures the challenges facing rural districts. He wants to take a closer look at “low-wealth, high-need districts” – like many of those in poor rural communities and inner cities – to see how well the formula matches the challenges those districts face in offering advanced courses and other programs for an adequate education.

Rural schools have “diseconomies of scale,” Lopez said. In rural districts that serve few students, for example, the needs of a single special education student can’t be the difference between hiring new classroom teachers or expanding a reading program and not being able to afford such improvements. So even though the current formula says many of those districts are “overfunded,” Lopez said, many are still a long way from offering the programs and services their students need.

“Does the formula really address 2017 needs and constraints? That I have questions about, and many people do,” Lopez said. 

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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