Where's the equity? Forces gather to fight Cuomo on school aid
An epic battle is brewing in Albany over how the state funds education, pitting an ambitious Democratic-controlled state Legislature against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appears committed to pretending that the issue doesn't exist.
Since Democrats won control of the state Senate in November, expectations have been building that the Legislature will not only increase education aid, but reboot the out-of-date "foundation aid" formula used to disburse about 70 percent of state funding to school districts.
The formula was put in effect in 2007 under Gov. Eliot Spitzer as the state's response to a major court finding: New York needed to align its funding of schools with the costs of providing a "sound basic education" and the multiple needs of some 700 school districts. A lot of cash was promised, but the recession happened and about $4 billion has never been delivered.
An underfunded, antiquated, politically manipulated version of the formula is still used every year, relying on 2000 Census data and imprecise methods of measuring communities' wealth, poverty and needs. But instead of leading the charge to modernize the formula, and get a better handle on how much the state should responsibly fund, Cuomo has tried to disown the subject.
Instead he's focused on how school districts divide money among their schools, and is threatening to involve the state in local budgeting decisions.
Many see this thrust as a "look over there" sideshow.
The need for a fair, accurate and responsible system for determining state aid to schools is increasingly dire. Districts face growing costs, like school security and mental health services, while the property-tax levy cap limits their ability to pay for them.
Parents and educators from the Ossining and Port Chester-Rye school districts rallied outside the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains on Saturday, next to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., to challenge politicians who talk about equity but don't deliver. Their districts are among those most hurt by the breaking down of foundation aid.
These "urban, suburban" districts have growing enrollments and more kids coming from poverty. But the formula somehow fails to measure their needs, in part because they are located in regions considered wealthy. They get less than half the state aid that the formula should allot them. Many other districts with lesser needs get 70 percent or so of their "full" funding.
"It's not that complicated: Our schools aren't getting the money they need to fund programs and staff, like social workers and guidance counselors, to help students reach their potential," said Melissa Banta, co-chair of the My Brother's Keeper program in Ossining.
Ossining Superintendent Raymond Sanchez said that no one in Albany will explain why the formula treats some districts worse than others. "I've been fighting this fight for six years, and I've been given no explanation," he said.
Carolee Brakewood, president of the Port Chester Board of Education, said that larger class sizes and staff cuts in her district are directly attributable to the loss of $190 million in foundation aid that the state has not coughed up since 2008. "When you do not fund us adequately, children suffer," she said.
Now Democrats leading the Assembly and Senate are expected to change the game.
State Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, came to Saturday's rally and said Cuomo's budget proposal, which would increase foundation aid by $338 million, is not a serious starting point for negotiations. She wants to start with the state Board of Regents' proposal that would increase state education aid by $2.1 billion, including $1.66 billion in foundation aid.
Once the money is there, she told me, legislators and education officials can look at updating and improving the foundation aid formula itself.
"We need new assessments of poverty and more," she said. "But we can't start by compromising on the amount of money needed for equity."
State spending on education is so great — about $26.7 billion this year, including $17.8 billion toward foundation aid — that it's easy to assume that there is enough there for everybody. But educational equity and fairness can be an elusive goal; big cities, affluent suburbs and isolated rural communities have very different abilities to raise money through property taxes. Foundation aid is supposed to be the equalizer.
Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, told me that the foundation aid formula was once a pretty miraculous attempt to achieve equity. But it needs to be refurbished.
"The basic elements are solid, but the data is old," he said. "Let's repair the formula and phase in the necessary funding. This is not going away, no matter what the governor thinks."
The deadline to pass a state budget is April 1. At Saturday's rally, Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, D-Ossining, said she anticipated difficult negotiations with Cuomo, and may have had the best insight into why. Even though the foundation aid formula represented a state response to a court decision,Cuomo never embraced the issue as part of his brand.
"He basically thinks we spend too much on education," Galef said. "As far as foundation aid, he never felt it was his."
Gary Stern is engagement editor. Twitter: @garysternNY