State Must Explore Realistic School Funding

It is long past the time for New York to have a realistic conversation over equitable school funding.

Equitable funding can’t just mean more money in state aid. After all, a state that has just allegedly found enough of a surplus to offer tax relief programs can’t begin promising billions of dollars in additional promises to anyone who comes with their hand out. Obviously, some sort of redistribution of existing programs must happen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2014-15 budget includes $47 million in state aid for the Jamestown Public Schools District, an increase of $1,028,804 from last year. That aid increase doesn’t even cover Jamestown’s increased payment into the state retirement system, which means the district has to find ways to pay its cost increases – the four biggest of which are wages, health care, supplies/contractual items and the loss of Race to the Top funding – that total another $1.6 million. And, the district has to find money to pay for training necessary for teachers to properly teach students under the new Common Core State Standards.

That situation is repeated in countless school districts throughout New York state and is the reason why, less than a month after unveiling a 2014-15 budget that spends $21.88 billion on education, New York state is being sued – again – for not funding its schools fairly. Jamestown’s example shows the lunacy of saying New York’s school districts don’t need additional aid when cutting positions, class offerings and closing school buildings cuts against the very grain of the 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling.

Equally crazy is giving an inefficient system a blank check in the name of funding equality. The popular all-or-nothing arguments over school funding do us no good. A middle ground must be found that allows schools to adequately educate children while not raising taxes so much that no business or taxpayer can afford to live in New York state.

A good place to start is at least following former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s foundation aid formula and ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Spitzer’s solution to the 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit decision was the creation of foundation aid, a system that takes into account the relative wealth of students in a school district, the property wealth of a school district and other factors like the number of special education students, English language learners and students who receive free and reduced lunch and sets an aid number that should be equitable. Districts that can afford to raise more through local tax dollars should, in theory, receive less state aid.

Spitzer also acknowledged aid shortcomings for many districts and realized that making aid equitable would cost too much to do in one year, so his formula included a series of increases that would eventually make state aid equitable. Not only did the incremental increases end with the 2008-09 recession, the state initiated the Gap Elimination Adjustment that took aid from all schools in order to help balance the state budget. Following Spitzer’s plan, or coming up with a revised foundation aid formula, seems necessary.

That doesn’t mean the state should simply add that money to its budget. There are various “save harmless” factors that by and large benefit more wealthy school districts. A recent analysis by Dr. Richard Timbs to the Schoharie County School Boards Association shows 151 school districts statewide are considered overfunded according to the foundation aid formula at a cost of $130,300,724. Redistributing that money to the 525 underfunded school districts would be a good start.

Ending save harmless provisions must be coupled with changes to the 2 percent tax cap, because there is simply no way those 151 districts could receive less state aid, raise the money they need and still stay under the tax cap. A common sense tweak may be to cap a tax increase at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is higher. Voters can still, if they are willing exceed the tax cap.

Such changes may not solve the entire problem, but they would be a good first step.