ALBANY -- The Board of Regents on Monday requested an increase in state education spending by $2 billion, focusing the increase on lifting foundation aid by $1.9 billion.
The foundation aid increase, which focuses on increasing the amount of money distributed through the state’s core education funding formula, would be the largest amount spent on the formula since it was established in 2007. The request also comes as state lawmakers set out to possibly rewrite the formula, hosting public forums on the subject around the state this winter.
But the Regents proposal is effectively a starting bid that is never fully met by the governor or Legislature. State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are already grappling with a budget deficit as high as $6 billion that will complicate the upcoming budget season.
The Regents, however, argued education spending is an investment in the state’s youngest residents and can save money in the long run on other costs like policing, jailing and serving people.
“This is about investment,” Chancellor Betty Rosa said at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting. “This is about looking at how do we invest … in early childhood all the way through to our high school graduation issues, our workforce issues, so in fact we are not feeding a pipeline we know will cost us.”
The Regents proposal would guarantee a 1 percent increase in state aid to all districts before driving the bulk of the funding to the state’s neediest schools as determined by the foundation aid formula. The formula accounts for student enrollment, poverty and other factors in determining how much money each district should need to deliver a “foundational” education to all of its students. Schenectady schools, for example, last year received about $40 million less than what the formula says they should receive.
The funding request also calls for a three-year phase-in of funding still outstanding under the foundation aid formula: the $1.9 million of the 2020-2021 school year would be the start of a total increase of $4.7 billion over three years.
The Regents proposal also focuses on an expansion of pre-kindergarten, devoting $20 million to an expansion of 2,000 pre-kindergarten spots for 4-year-old kids. Another $6 million in the request is earmarked to support a pilot program for teaching pre-kindergarten students with disabilities in the same classrooms as students without learning disabilities.
While various education groups Monday lauded the Regents proposal, the Empire Center, a fiscally-conservative government watchdog group, argued the proposal was irresponsible given the state's budget shortfall. E.J. McMahon, an research analyst, in a post titled "Regents flunk finance (again)," pointed out that New York already funds its schools more than any other state in the country. He highlighted the $6 billion budget gap, largely the result of state Medicaid spending, and said it was likely to grow in the coming years.
"Budget deficit? What budget deficit?" McMahon wrote cheekily of the Regents proposal.
Education advocates, though, have already started to push back on the argument that the state's budget constraints should limit spending. Many advocates have argued the state is obligated under court decisions to meet funding levels spelled out by the foundation aid formula.
"[The Regents] state aid proposal is grounded in educational excellence and equity," Jasmine Gripper, legislative director of Alliance for Quality Education, said in a statement Monday. "The Regents' agenda offers a clear path to fully funding public schools in a manner that recognized the impact that poverty and systemic racism have on our students."
If history is any guide, the final level of education funding approved by lawmakers in the spring will come in well short of the Regents request. Last year, for example, the Regents proposed a $2.1 billion state aid increase, with $1.6 billion devoted to the foundation aid formula. In his budget proposal last year, Cuomo called for a $956 million increase in state education aid; lawmakers adopted a budget that increased overall education funding by about $1 billion.
The year before that the Regents requested $1.6 billion; Cuomo proposed an increase of $769 million; lawmakers ultimately increased state education funding by around $1 billion.
Last month the Educational Conference Board, a coalition of statewide education groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards and other educators, called for the state to lift education spending by $2.1 billion. That proposal called for targeted spending to strengthen school safety, expand mental health services, and support costly services for special education students and English language learners.
The conference board’s proposal also included a report on how much it would cost districts to just maintain the level of programming they offer this school year, given rising salaries, benefits and other costs. It would cost district’s $1.6 billion to maintain current services, according to the report.