Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to force districts to drive funds to their poorest schools, as well as his overall school funding bid, was widely panned by the state’s education establishment on Tuesday.
In his annual budget address, Cuomo proposed boosting overall school funding by $956 million, bringing the state’s total school aid outlay to $27.7 billion. The governor’s budget lifts foundation aid funding – the state’s core school aid formula - $338 million, well short of the $1.6 billion in foundation aid proposed by the Board of Regents last month. The Regents’ proposed boosting overall funding by more than $2.1 billion.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Chancellor Betty Rosa in a joint statement Tuesday night said they were “extremely alarmed” by Cuomo’s school funding proposal, which they said “falls far short of what schools need to achieve equity, or even keep pace with inflation and demographic changes.”
The governor also proposed a new funding formula – what he called an “education equity formula” – that would force school districts to dedicate a portion of their foundation aid increase “to any of their neediest schools that are not already equitably funded” and earn state approval for a plan to do so.
That proposal came as Cuomo continued to press his argument that school districts are not doing enough to focus resources in their neediest schools, even as most education advocates and officials argue the state’s neediest districts don’t receive enough state funding to meet student needs in any of their schools. Pointing to a new law that mandates districts report how much money per student they budgeted at each school, Cuomo said districts were not sending enough money their poorest schools.
“We assumed if we funded the poorer school districts, they would turn around and fund the poorer schools in their districts,” Cuomo said. “That was our assumption. It was a bad assumption.”
Cuomo pointed to school-level funding disparities within a handful of urban school districts across the state, including in Buffalo and Rochester. In Buffalo, for example, per-pupil spending at the district’s poorest 20 percent of schools was lower than per-pupil spending at the district least-poor 20 percent of schools.
In Schenectady, a similar disparity exists between Martin Luther King Jr. and Woodlawn elementary schools: MLK, the district’s highest-poverty school, received just over $14,700 per student in the current budget; Woodlawn, with the third-lowest rate of students in income-qualifying program, received the most funding per student at over $16,500. District officials said the difference was largely driven by more experienced and more costly teachers at Woodlawn and the presence of a districtwide special education class at the school.
Education lobbyists and advocates, administrators, educators and some new Democratic lawmakers, though, have argued Cuomo’s attempts to reframe the school funding debate around how districts are allocating money to schools, rather than how the state is allocating money to districts, is an attempt to divert from the more than $4 billion shortfall in meeting what the state's foundation aid formula calculates districts across the state need to meet student needs.
Legislative analysts in statewide education groups representing school boards, superintendents and business officials have said lawmakers should be careful about directing districts how to allocate their funding at the local level. School-level funding disparities could be a product of entrenched funding for more affluent schools, but it could also be the result of teacher costs, largely enshrined in labor agreements, and differences in the types of programs offered in specific schools. A comparison of school-level funding in Broadalbin-Perth, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Gloversville and Johnstown school districts, for example, is complicated by the fact that nearly all of the school buildings in those districts serve different grade-level groupings.
“We appreciate the governor’s desire to direct funds to the neediest schools, but we disagree with the notion that a state formula devised in Albany can distribute funds to thousands of individual school buildings more fairly and effectively than the locally elected [school boards],” the State School Boards Association said in a statement after the governor’s address.