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December 09, 2016
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Short changing (students) us all

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $137 billion budget plan for 2014-2015 includes an $807 million increase for education (up 3.8% over last fiscal year), with $608 earmarked as school aid for the state’s 709 school districts and $100 million to fund pre-Kindergarten programs, as part of a five-year, $1.5 billion initiative to establish universal, full-day pre-Kindergarten statewide. The increase in the governor’s proposed budget, however, does not compensate for the cuts of previous years that began during the 2007-2009 recession. Many of the state’s beleaguered school districts and education advocates are calling the governor’s budget numbers woefully inadequate to stave off more rounds of cuts to staff, student programs, courses and other resources.

In the weeks running up to the governor’s state-of-the-state address, the New York State Board of Regents called for an increase of $1.3 billion in school aid (up 6%); the Educational Conference Board (a coalition of associations representing school districts, their superintendents, school administrators and business officers, school boards, teacher organizations and parent teacher groups) called for a $1.5 billion increase just to maintain current programs; and 83 state senators and assembly members signed a letter that called for a $1.9 billion hike in school aid. Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget falls well short of all of these.

The truth is that school districts are still trying to cope with less state aid than they received after the legislature passed the Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007 (EBRA), necessitated in part by a ruling of the state’s highest court that held the NYS constitution guarantees all students the opportunity for a “sound basic education.” The 2007 education reform act created a formula for distributing state aid to school districts based (a) on a district’s ability to raise revenue, i.e. property tax valuation, and (b) the needs of its students. After two years of fully funding the act, the legislature began cutting. Ever since, school districts, especially poorer ones with a lower assessed value of their property tax base, have had a hard time making up for the lost state funds, facing the equally unpleasant choices of cutting programs, services and staff, or raising taxes on homeowners who can ill afford it. (Districts that wanted to raise taxes to compensate for the lost funds faced the added obstacle of the state-mandated 2% cap on annual property tax increases.) This difference between 2008-2009 state funding and today’s levels is referred to by many New York education advocates as the “funding gap.”

There is another version of the funding gap, too, that the governor did not address. It concerns the inequity of distribution for how the state applies its school aid formula to wealthy versus poor districts. Currently, seven school districts are suing the State of New York for underfunding their schools, among them the Port Jervis, New York School District in the Upper Delaware River Region. The case is scheduled for trial this fall. (In the past, New York State courts have ruled that constitutional rights to a basic education cannot be denied because of state budget constraints and budgetary pressures. It will be interesting to see how the court decides.)

In all fairness, New York State pays more to educate its students than most states. Further, New York State is not alone in feeling the pinch; studies show that a majority of all states are now funding schools at lower levels than before the recession.

Still, one cannot deny that state cuts have had big consequences for local school districts, resulting in long-term negative consequences both for students and for the state’s economic competitiveness.

We believe that restoring more school funds should be an urgent priority and that Gov. Cuomo should have found other places in his budget to make cuts. We question the wisdom and timing of the governor’s proposed $2.2 billion in tax cuts while school funding still lags behind needed levels. Fully funding education is an investment not only in our students and their futures, but in the state and nation’s future. Doing any less is short-changing not only students, but all of society.