The state’s top education policymakers called on Monday for a $1.6 billion increase in education funding, even as state lawmakers face a budget hole of $4 billion or more.
The state aid proposal included an increase of $1.25 billion to foundation aid, the state’s core education funding formula, and targeted investments to expand prekindergarten classes and career and technical education programs. The overall increase would boost state education spending to $27 billion, 6.2 percent more than last year.
At Monday’s Board of Regents meeting, the state’s tough fiscal outlook — driven by lower-than-expected state revenue and federal changes to health care and tax policy — was recognized, even as the call was raised for investment in education priorities.
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While the Regents proposal did not spell out how long it should take lawmakers to reach the $4.2 billion funding level prescribed under the foundation aid formula, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia reiterated her support for full funding and the high-poverty school districts — like Schenectady — that rely on those funds.
“If we aren’t going to keep moving forward to ultimately get to a full implementation of foundation aid, every one of those districts is very challenged,” Elia said. “And this particular year, when we know their residents are going to be challenged, when we know our programming is going to be challenged … we felt like we put in a balanced budget.”
All districts, including those considered to be fully funded under foundation aid, would see a base increase funding under the Regents proposal. The most needy districts would see increases large enough to accommodate a 3 percent spending boost.
But those funding increases need to first cover the cost of rising pay and benefits costs for teachers that, each year, make it more expensive to provide students the same level of programs and services as the prior year.
The Educational Conference Board, a coalition of education advocacy groups, last week called for a $2 billion spending increase; the group also estimated it would take a $1.5 billion increase to maintain the same level of programs offered in schools this year.
“Our (proposal) is very purposeful on saying we need to have additional supports go in for foundation aid for certain students,” Elia said of the Regents proposal. “We also said it’s very important with the (cost) increases that are coming across the board to our districts that they be able to keep up.”
An effort to increase prekindergarten funding underscored the board’s struggle with how much funding to seek, given the state’s fiscal outlook. Regent Roger Tilles proposed boosting the Regents recommendation for prekindergarten funding from $20 million to $25 million, but he withdrew that suggestion after other board members expressed concerns with altering the proposal.
“The worst thing we could do is ever allow it to be viewed that our state aid proposal is a Christmas tree and wish list,” Regent Wade Norwood said.
Last year, the Regents recommended lawmakers boost overall funding by more than $2 billion, including $1.8 billion in foundation aid; lawmakers increased education by $1.5 billion, in response.
While Schenectady schools entered last budget season expecting an opportunity to increase programs, and did ultimately boost spending and cut taxes, Superintendent Larry Spring last week said he didn’t know where things would come out this year. But he acknowledged the state’s tight fiscal situation and raised the concern that lawmakers may fall back on budget tricks that reduce state aid to districts.
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