Just days after lawmakers wrapped up the 2016 legislative session, Schenectady education advocates are beginning to press for increased funding in next year’s state budget.
The statewide education advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) on Monday released a report that analyzed how far 2016 state aid increases went in meeting annual funding levels districts argue they are owed under a 2006 court decision and legislation meant to comply with that order.
Calling earlier this year for a four-year phase-in of the state’s Foundation Aid, AQE highlighted 130 “high needs” districts that received less than 20 percent of its outstanding Foundation Aid funding. The districts were “way off track” in funding, despite the state boosting Foundation Aid funding over $600 million, the group said.
“It helped our schools move in the right direction, but we are still woefully inadequate in funding high needs districts,” AQE policy legislative director Jasmine Gripper said of the state budget.
The education group, districts across the state and Democratic lawmakers often cite the amount of money outstanding from a decade-old legislative commitment to pay $5.5 billion to districts over four years. They argue that dollar figure was set as the “constitutional standard” to comply with a 2006 court decision that the state was not providing students with a “sound, basic education.”
The Legislature stopped meeting its commitment once the Great Recession hit, and districts argue they have been left in the lurch ever since. Schenectady schools are shortchanged over $50 million in annual funding under that original commitment.
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested earlier this year that he did not think the Legislature was bound to fund the state Foundation Aid formula at the level agreed to by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
On Monday, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia didn’t comment on whether she agrees with Cuomo or with the districts calling for funding at the levels promised in 2007, but she said state officials were looking into how the funding formulas could be improved. She didn’t answer a question about AQE’s conclusion that 81 percent of “high needs” districts were “off track” in receiving outstanding Foundation Aid within four years.
“That’s an agenda that they have,” Elia said. “I do believe we need to look very closely at the formulas and we are in the process doing that.”
Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who appeared together at a press conference on the steps of Hamilton Elementary School on Monday, said they disagreed with the governor’s interpretation of the funding commitment.
“Unfortunately for the governor, the courts decided against him … it resulted in a court decision and legislation,” Spring said. “I won’t presume to know what’s in his mind when he says they aren’t bound to court decisions and laws enacted by the Legislature.”
Spring also said that state funding levels were the result of a political process that created “egregiously discriminatory” funding allocations among districts and left Schenectady schools far short of what it needs to adequately serve its students — around 80 percent of who are classified as economically disadvantaged.
If Schenectady schools received the $50 million more a year, Spring has said, the district could cut taxes by one-third and increase spending on literacy programs, mental health supports and internship and mentoring opportunities.
Of 33 school districts with a student population of 40 percent of more black and Hispanic students, 30 received less than 20 percent of its outstanding foundation aid funds this year, according to the AQE report.
Members of a citywide coalition of clergy and community activists who pushed for funding Schenectady schools this year also appeared at Hamilton, calling school funding a “moral issue.” They also committed to pushing for the funding until the state met its earlier Foundation Aid commitment.
“It’s time for our state leaders to step up to the plate,” said Rev. Peter Carman of Emmanuel-Friedens Church. “It’s about doing right by our children and youth.”