Cuomo eyes education funding changes, new diversity curriculum mandate

Cuomo calls for 3-percent funding increase in state education aid but education advocates say it's still not enough

CAPITOL — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday proposed education funding changes that would shift special education funding to local districts and consolidate a litany of reimbursements districts get for transportation, construction and other expenses.

The consolidation of so-called “expense-based aids” would free up lawmakers to focus annual funding increases to the state’s neediest schools and districts, Cuomo argued as he urged lawmakers to join him in a broader change to how the state allocates education funding. Many details about his proposal, though, remained unclear in the hours following his speech.

Cuomo appeared to denounce the state’s entrenched regional “shares” system, which locks in a certain percentage of annual funding increases for New York City – about 39 percent – and Long Island – about 13 percent – leaving the remainder for the rest of the state. After lawmakers determine an overall education aid increase, they work back from the shares breakdown and divide up the remaining funding based on other funding formulas.

“The current formula is designed to achieve political needs not equity,” Cuomo said during his annual budget address in Albany.

Bob Lowry, who analyzes state education policy at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said it wasn’t clear based on the governor’s speech how, if at all, the governor was proposing to change the practice of dividing education aid based on the regional shares.

Lowry said the superintendents council has raised concerns with the regional allocations, arguing its difficult to employ a formula on an annual basis – giving districts more predictability in planning budgets from year to year – if regions are guaranteed a certain chunk of the funding increase.

“Because you are trying to hit these targets you can’t have a formula that functions from year to year,” Lowry said Tuesday evening.

Another pair of proposals in the governor’s budget may illicit concerns from district leaders: an effort to consolidate 10 separate expense-based aid categories and fold that funding into the broader foundation aid formula; and, eliminate the state’s contribution to the room and board costs for out-of-district special education student placements.

The governor framed the consolidation of the expense-based aid as an effort to boost funding for the state’s neediest districts, arguing the funding would instead bolster foundation aid that would be driven to those needier districts and schools.

Lowry said it was unclear how the expense-based aid proposal would work given the details provided as of Tuesday evening, but he noted it was similar to a proposal last year that education groups fought against and was ultimately dropped by lawmakers.

The New York State School Boards Association in a statement after the governor’s speech also outlined concerns with the proposal to consolidate the aid categories, while also pointing out that many details were left out of the proposals released in the hours following the speech.

The budget proposal envisions eliminating the state’s 18.4 percent share of the room and board costs for certain children with severe disabilities who are given out-of-district placements; the cost shift would cost districts outside of New York City around $25 million, according to estimates from the superintendents council.

The governor’s budget proposal called for increasing overall state education funding $826 million, a 3 percent increase. That increase would include $754 million in new foundation aid, the state’s core formula for determining district funding allocations, and a formula education advocates have long argued is severely underfunded. By comparison, the Board of Regents proposed an increase in state education aid by $2.1 billion.

The new foundation aid funding, under the governor’s proposal, would largely be driven to the state’s neediest districts. The proposal also calls for funding increases to support expanding prekindergarten seats, offering grants for after-school programs, giving students more chances to earn college credits in high school and other education priorities the governor has pushed in recent years.

New diversity curriculum mandate?

Cuomo during Tuesday’s address and his earlier State of the State speech called for the creation of a new curriculum to focus on diversity and tolerance. Cuomo announced the proposal in the context of recent incidents of antisemitism and called on educators to ensure students learn about the value of differences and tolerance.

The budget proposal called for a $1 million investment in the development of a “statewide curriculum on diversity and tolerance, to ensure that our children learn about religious freedom and the principles upon which our country was founded.”

The governor said the curriculum could benefit from the state’s many museums and historical sites and deep history of immigration and religious and ethnic diversity.

“Let’s mandate that public schools teach our children the beauty of diversity and tolerance and how this nation was founded on religious freedom,” Cuomo said. “Let’s get our culturally-significant museums to participate in that, so our children understand the full lesson of what it means to be an American.”

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