Lynn Lillian is the chair of Fair Funding for Our Schools, an advocacy network dedicated to insuring adequate and equitable funding for New York public schools. A lifelong supporter of public schools, she also serves on her local school board. I heard Lynn Lillian speak about the budget at a meeting of supporters of public education in the Monroe-Woodbury District and was very impressed by her understanding of the details. I asked her to write this article for readers of the blog. She graciously agreed.
In spite of New York State’s responsibility to provide the funding necessary to educate all of New York’s students, the past few years have seen multiple assaults on funding for education in the form of the 2% Tax Cap, the GEA, and Foundation Aid. At the same time funding for public schools has been reduced, districts have been required to spend astronomical sums implementing Common Core Learning Standards and new APPR evaluations, required by Race to the Top.
Education funding in New York is maddeningly convoluted. Multiple formulas and funding mechanisms defy understanding and sometimes even logic. Education advocates joke that there are only three people in the state that actually understand the formulas that are the basis for public school funding in New York. As my grandmother used to say, it can be enough to drive a happy person right out of their mind.
However complex, funding does get to the heart of the matter. The governor is fond of saying that money doesn’t matter in education, but The National Bureau of Economic Research cites data that links increases in spending to higher graduation rates, and higher income.
Every child has a right to a fully funded public education in New York. In this context the chronic underfunding of education in our state is particularly indefensible.
Our state constitution demands and law requires that the state fund education adequately and equitably. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision reaffirmed the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education as well as the state’s responsibility to fund it.
School districts have only two discreet sources of revenue by law to fund their budgets, aid from the government, and the ability to levy taxes in our communities to make up the difference between program costs and what state aid provides. Both sources of revenue have been impacted dramatically.
In order to bring the level of funding up to what was deemed necessary to provide a sound basic education, the CFE decision also found that public schools in New York were owed billions of dollars. This money was to be paid back through the Foundation Aid formula, which was created to fund all districts equitably based on a districts’ ability to contribute, and it’s need. That debt remains unpaid.
In the wake of the recession, the state introduced two laws that further constrained education funding in New York: The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which was introduced to close a state budget gap, and the 2% Tax Cap Law.
The GEA allows the state to take back part of the money districts are owed in aid to spend somewhere else. Since 2010 the state has used the GEA shore up it’s own budget shortfalls, taking back badly needed aid from schools. The Tax Cap Law limits how much school districts can raise the tax levy. With the tax levy limit set at no greater than 2%, and costs generally rising about 3 per cent per year, the cap created an automatic deficit, functionally reducing both sources of revenue districts rely on.
When the tax cap law was being proposed, many education advocates lobbied for the law to be tied to mandate relief. Eliminating some unfunded mandates would theoretically address the loss of funds due to the tax cap. Not only has there been no significant mandate relief, but also more unfunded mandates have been imposed, and these have been costly.
For example, New York’s participation in the Federal Race to the Top grant required that the state implement the Common Core Learning Standards and a new APPR teacher evaluation system. In most districts the cost of implementing these mandates exponentially outstripped the modest and often inconsequential funds provided by the federal grant driving up per pupil cost and saddling districts with the bill.
Without the ability to levy taxes to make up the difference in the loss of funds due to the tax cap, the GEA and the failure to fully fund the Foundation Aid formula, districts have had no choice but to make cuts to programs and reductions in staff that erode the quality of public education.
The numbers are sobering. The New York State Association of Business officials report that the combined effect of the tax cap and state aid reductions have resulted in a gap of 17 billion dollars between historical and projected revenues. To protect academic programs from this loss of revenue, many districts have tapped into their reserves, leaving nothing in case of emergency or natural disaster. In addition, 30,000 teachers, administrators, and support staff have been laid off according to the Education Conference Board, a coalition of the state’s major educational organizations.
The result has been increased class sizes and fewer services to support kids. Worse still, 51% of New York’s school districts are still receiving aid under the 2008 level. Districts challenged by issues of poverty find themselves without the basics: books for libraries, and textbooks for teachers, strained by large class size and understaffed programs. Even districts that have managed to hold on to some resources find their students shut out of seats at highly selective colleges and universities as their academic and extracurricular programs have been whittled away.
The fallout of the past 6 years is a system in distress. Underfunding of our schools, in all of its forms, has meant opportunities lost for students, opportunities this generation of students won’t get back. The state has failed to deliver on both adequacy and equity. Without the funding necessary to provide a sound basic education, the conversation is not about the haves and the have-nots in public education, but about the have -nothings and the have- not- enough’s. Neither is acceptable.
All of our students deserve and are owed rich curriculum and necessary supplies; books for starters.
All students deserve and are owed the resources and experiences that will allow them to compete for seats at highly selective colleges and universities, and prepare them for meaningful rewarding work.
Going into this year’s budget cycle New York State owed its public schools Nearly 5 billion dollars in Foundation Aid and 1 billion dollars in GEA funds. With a 4.2 billion dollar surplus this year, and budget surpluses projected through 2018, one would think that it would be time for the state to deliver on the constitutional promise of a sound basic education and begin to pay back it’s debt to public schools by fully funding the Foundation Aid formula and eliminate GEA reductions.
Like farmers in the dust bowl feeling a drop of rain, educators imagined that these surpluses offered the opportunity to begin to repair the damage done by chronic underfunding and shift the conversation from how to hang on to how to best support and educate our students. The Governor’s first volley in the budget process put an end to that idea. It was an unprecedented push to tie state aid increases to education policies that demonized teachers, emphasized even more standardized testing, not less, and undermined public schools by promoting charters and blaming schools that are grossly underfunded. In essence, holding aid our students desperately need hostage to politics. The arrogance of his proposals ignited a groundswell of opposition.
That opposition helped secure the 1.4 billion allocated for education in the recently adopted budget, certainly a better outcome than the governor’s proposed increase of 1.1 billion. While hailed as the largest state aid increase in years, it still leaves in place most of the billions of dollars owed to New York’s public schools in the form of GEA reduction and Foundation Aid. A disproportionate amount of what is owed is in the form of Foundation Aid, which affects the highest need districts in the state, exacerbating the lack of equity in school funding. Further, the Education Conference Board estimates that it will take 1.2 billion dollars to maintain current programs. When these factors are taken into account 1.4 billion represents a modest increase in school aid.
The governor’s initiatives were only strengthened in this budget, saddling districts with additional unfunded mandates and loss of local control. For example, my home district received a 3.4% increase in aid. The aid is welcome, but doesn’t go far enough, particularly when the strings attached are taken into account. To get the full funding due to us, districts have to comply with a new teacher evaluation plan (APPR). The plan as reported represents additional costs to districts in the form of outside evaluators, professional development for evaluators within districts, and costs associated with covering classrooms in the case teachers act as evaluators.
Districts receive their aid on a monthly basis and if they are not able to negotiate and approve the states’ APPR plan by the November 15th deadline, payment of the aid increase will stop. The budget bill also includes a requirement that teachers complete 100 hours of professional development over a five -year period. Again, districts pay for that, begging the question: how many costs do districts have to cover before an increase is not an increase?
Language in the bill relating to “failing” schools outlines the right of the state to convert these schools into charters, representing yet another drain on district resources. For every student who attends a charter, money is siphoned from the home district to that charter. These initiatives have another cost; the time educators spend complying with these unfunded mandates translates to loss of time that could be spent developing and implementing rich instruction – Which in turn results in opportunities lost for our students.
Over the next few weeks we will hear numerous claims, often contradictory, about what this budget means for students. It’s all a shell game. The complexity of the funding mechanisms at work allow for seemingly conflicting declarations about where we are. What is most dramatically illustrated by this year’s budget cycle is that educators and the students they serve have been driven into a corner arms aloft: trying to deflect blows from the state in the form of unsupported directives, funding reductions and inequities, and accusations of failure all meant to distract from the real issue: the state has capitulated it’s constitutional responsibility to fund it’s schools.