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Short changing (students) us all

January 29, 2014

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.”