Capital Region

Cuomo looks to reframe education funding fight

School advocates want funding formula met; governor wants intra-district inequities examined

In a speech last week laden with progressive promises, from legalizing marijuana to tightening gun restrictions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo devoted only a small section to education.

“We must bring justice to our educational system and not with hollow redirect but with real reform,” Cuomo said during a speech delivered at the New York City Bar Association, a policy outline of sorts before lawmakers return to Albany next month.

But the broader import of his education comments – in which he called a core state school funding formula and a much-invoked lawsuit over whether the state adequately funds its districts “ghosts of the past” – have the potential to set up a fierce fight over whether funding disparities from school to school within districts are as consequential as those disparities between districts, or even more consequential.

How much of foundation aid school districts get. (Kathryn Hume/The Daily Gazette)

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo asserted during the speech. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy.”

Citing a new requirement that districts must report how much money they budget per pupil for each school in the district, the first batch of which were filed in the fall by more than 70 districts, Cuomo argued school districts aren’t doing enough to drive money to their neediest schools.

Education lobbyists and advocates, administrators, educators and some incoming Democratic lawmakers, though, heard Cuomo’s remarks as the “hollow redirect” and “political pandering” the governor decried.

The governor’s remarks were an attempt to divert the political debate away from overall state education aid, and the wide disparities that characterize education funding across the state, to how districts distribute that aid internally, some have argued.

“The governor is shifting blame for inadequate funding from the state to school districts,” said Mike Borges, executive director of the state Association of School Business Officials.

Policymakers and educators should be able to focus on both school-level allocations within districts and overall state funding, said Bob Lowry, of the State Council of School Superintendents.

“It’s possible that there are two sets of problems: that some districts aren’t receiving adequate funding from the state, and perhaps there are instances where poor schools within districts aren’t receiving the support they should,” Lowry said.

Lowry also questioned what kind of policy path the governor was headed down: Would lawmakers seize a say in how districts distribute their dollars to their schools?

“I wonder about what if any action steps flow from focusing on in-district allocations,” Lowry said. “Is the state going to get in the business of telling districts how to allocate funds to schools? Is that something lawmakers want to get involved in?”

The school-to-school disparities are there

The governor’s argument about funding differences within districts is at least partly supported by the initial batch of school-level financial reports. But educators and analysts warn the data may only show a small part of the story.

The broader statewide funding differences are more meaningful in terms of education quality and student outcomes, advocates and educators say. For example, while Saratoga Springs has received all of the funding a key state formula says they should get, Schenectady has received 70 percent of its funding under that formula.

In Schenectady, the district’s highest poverty school, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, received the smallest per-student funding allocation of any school in the district. MLK received just over $14,700 per-student under the current budget, according to Schenectady’s school-level financial report.

The district’s 11 elementary schools on average were funded at just over $16,500 per student. The highest-funded elementary school, Woodlawn Elementary School at over $18,500, has the third-lowest rate of students in income-qualifying programs in the district.

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said district officials have been working to undo school-level disparities in recent years, highlighting a major redistricting effort that set new school boundaries starting in fall 2016.

When Spring presented a budget proposal to the school board in April, he outlined how officials planned to use a school-level needs index to prioritize funding to schools based on demographics, academic markers and other indicators.

Kathryn Hume/The Daily Gazette

Under the district’s current budget, funding was frozen at Howe, Woodlawn, and Zoller elementary schools, schools deemed in least need of added support. Still, 70 percent or more of the students in those three schools qualify for public programs, based on 2016-2017 school year enrollment data, compared to 90 percent in the district’s poorest schools.

But the economically disadvantaged rates in all of Schenectady schools rate higher than all of the schools in many of the region’s districts.

Spring argued that the extra funding the district should receive under the state’s Foundation Aid formula – another $40 million according to a database the state Education Department produced in November – dwarfs what could be accomplished by shuffling funds within the district.

“Yes, we can get better in the district,” Spring said. “But to think that redistributing these few hundred dollars is going to overcome the fact we are redistributing thousands and thousands of fewer dollars – that flies in the face of logic.”

Seven districts in the Capital Region – Schenectady, Troy, Gloversville, Johnstown, Amsterdam, Broadalbin-Perth and Cobleskill-Richmondville – were among the first round of districts to file their school-level reports.

So far the only districts required to release the school-level data are those that receive at least half of their funding from the state, largely an indication of poverty and need, and the state’s big city districts. Over the next two years, nearly all districts in the state will be required to report school-level funding distributions.

A comparison of school-level funding in Broadalbin-Perth, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Gloversville and Johnstown schools district is complicated by the fact that nearly all of the school buildings in those districts serve different grade-level groupings.

In Broadalbin-Perth, for example, one school serves kindergarten through second grade, another school serves third through fifth grade and the remaining two schools are the middle school and high school.

School funding levels in Amsterdam’s elementary schools correspond closely to the school’s poverty levels. The overall spread between the schools is less than $1,000 per student. But the district is still missing about 25 percent of what the Foundation Aid formula says it needs.

The school-level disparities may be even more pronounced in some of the state’s largest districts.

In an analysis of the school-level reports from the Big Five districts – Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers and New York City – Rockefeller Institute for Government director Jim Malatras found that funding in those districts did not always flow to the neediest schools. More often funding flowed the other way.

In Buffalo, for instance, per-pupil spending at the district’s poorest 20 percent of schools was lower than the district’s least-poor 20 percent of schools.

“There are some issues to deal with not from the state to the district but within the district,” said Malatras, who in the past worked for Cuomo as a policy aide. “Why is that happening? How does that happen? What is going on there?”

He said districts leaders arguing the state needs to devote more funding to the neediest districts first need to examine themselves: In many instances, they aren’t doing that with their own schools, Malatras said.

“If the theory is the neediest should get the most, then it’s not happening within the district,” Malatras said. “They are saying Foundation Aid is not fully funding aid. But they don’t apply the same principles themselves to their own schools.”

School-level funding differences are largely a function of staff, far and away districts’ largest cost, school district leaders contend.

Teacher contracts often outline, and solidify, the process for how teachers are assigned to schools. In Schenectady, for instance, teachers with certain seniority levels can request a transfer. Over time, more experienced and more expensive teachers have clustered in certain schools, pushing up the per-pupil funding of those schools compared to other schools in the same district.

Also, schools that serve a higher share of students with special needs may also register higher per-pupil funding.

But differences could also be driven by politics and the strength wealthier communities hold over large institutions.

Earlier this month, the Board of Regents called for boosting state education aid by $2.1 billion, including a commitment to fund the Foundation Aid to the tune of nearly $5 billion over three years – a far cry from a “ghost of the past.”

And newly-elected state senators signaled after Cuomo’s speech that they don’t intend on letting him shift focus from calls to boost overall state aid.

“Our schools are owed $4 billion statewide and three-quarters of these funds are owed to our high-need school districts. It’s the law,” said Robert Jackson, a new state senator from Manhattan and the original plaintiff in the lawsuit Cuomo dismissed in his speech.

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