The education of our children is one of government's top priorities—every politician will say as much in every speech. Despite the rhetoric, it is amazing how uneducated our policy discussion continues to be on this vital issue. The State budget will be decided in several weeks. The Governor's budget advances a major education reform, which is essential as a matter of social justice. Our budget mandates disclosure of education funding formulas to decide whether they are fair and equitable.
Let's begin with the stark truth: There are two different education systems in the state, not public and private, but one system for the rich and one system for the poor. The essential issue is not overall funding levels. Our state spends more per pupil than any other state and double the national average. The real issue is the funding differentiation between poorer schools and richer schools. Our education system is funded by the federal and stategovernments, and local taxes. Wealthier communities can increase funding significantly through additional local taxes, thus wealthier localities often have better funded schools. The issue is funding equity for our poorer, often minority, lower performing schools.
First, let's dispense with the distractions, myths and legends. Advocates and officials will often argue about the "CFE" lawsuit from the early 1990s. That suit, in which the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) argued that New York City schools were underfunded, ultimately led the State and the courts to agree to a $1.9 billion increase in funding from City, State and Federal sources. Since then, funding for City schools has vastly increased from those levels, from $18.5 billion at the time of the case to $30.8 billion today. Yet misinformation and outright deception continues to swirl about the status of CFE. Contrary to a self-serving but false argument advanced by some officials, the State never had any funding obligation pursuant to CFE but shared a joint State, City and Federal commitment to fund $1.9 billion in total. Moreover, the case was dismissed in 2006 and has no relevance today. There is no continuing State, City or Federal debt or obligation pursuant to CFE.
At the same time, Governor Cuomo has vastly increased funding for schools across New York. Under the Governor's budget, education spending by the State will have risen 35% over seven years from $19.5 billion to $26.4 billion. That increase is more than three times the rate of inflation and 10 percent greater than our statutory education formula cap level that the Governor and the Legislature passed when he took office. Education has received the greatest percentage increase in the State budget—and we are proud of that fact.
However, our education discussion has been missing the mark. The question is not overall state spending. New York State leads the nation in spending. The fundamental question is how much do poor schools receive versus richer schools? CFE focused on total funding to New York City as if all of New York City was a poor district. It is not. The richest people in the world live in New York City and they have a wide disparity in school performance among the poorer and richer communities. The real social justice issue is to assure that New York City's poor schools are funded equitably.
The first challenge is the lack of transparency. Districts are resistant to disclose how much each school receives and the factors used to make the decision. While the State knows how much it distributes to each school district, the districts don't report how they distribute these funds to their poorer and richer schools.
Interestingly, advocates, journalists and State and local officials have all but ignored the issue.
Many school districts are small and the funding distribution is easier to discern. However, many districts are large and the funding distribution is not apparent. For example, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Yonkers and New York City are each an individual "local district." The State funds Buffalo at $762 million per year. We do not examine or mandate disclosure of Buffalo's distribution of those funds among Buffalo's 54 schools. Rochester has 50 schools, Syracuse has 32 schools, Albany has 15 schools and Yonkers has 39 schools. New York City has 1,600 schools and a budget of $30.8 billion. How are those funds distributed? Members of the Senate, Assembly and New York City Council would be hard pressed to answer what percentage of the funds schools in their own districts receive.
Why have we ignored this obvious issue? For two reasons. First, the local district funding level decides salaries and administrative costs which is the main relevance to most lobbyistsand institutional players, so the school level funding has not gotten the attention. And second, because it is controversial. The difficult but necessary issue to resolve is what is "equitable funding." Some say "equitable funding" is that every school receives an even proportional share. The Governor believes that is not "equitable." Fairness must take into consideration the need and circumstances of the particular student population. The Governor's position is that the chronically low performing schools should be our priority for attention and funding. That was the essential thrust of the CFE lawsuit, which was correct. Our focus should be on serving the students who need the most help and most services,which requires a school by school assessment and analysis.
An informed debate must answer two questions. First, what percentage of State funding should be used to equalize the disparity presented by our inherently inequitable property tax funding system; and second, what percentage of State and local aid should go to the poorer, lower performing schools.
We initiated that discussion in the Governor's budget earlier this year, which proposed equalizing statewide funding with a formula that allocates 75% of increased State funding to poorer schools. Whether our proposal is too high or too low a percentage is subject to debate. And we welcome it. The obvious next question is what formula should be used by the local school districts in allocating funds to the richer or poorer schools in their locality. Should we mandate that local districts provide the same 75% formula as the Governor proposed? The corollary is what percentage of funding should be provided to those chronically lower performing schools in their locality? Those are the questions which shouldbe at the heart of the debate. Again we must start with the facts. The Governor proposed this year in the budget that local districts must provide a school by school funding allocation as part of the funding process. Let's have an educated discussion on our education funding and focus on student needs. Citizens should ask their mayors and State representatives what percentage of funds go to higher performing schools and lower performing schools. What does their school receive, and how was that determination made considering performance, race, poverty and need? Is their school district "fiscally equitable" in their distribution of funds?
Education is the civil rights battle of this generation. The Governor is rightly asking, how far we have really come from Brown v Board of Education. Funding equity for poor schools versus rich schools is a fundamental social justice issue. There can be no budget resolution this year without addressing this issue.
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