Setting the Record Straight: The Truth About School Funding in New York

It’s an exciting time for the future of public education in New York. Thanks to the support of many parents, community organizers, policymakers, superintendents, advocates, and others, last Tuesday, Michael A. Rebell filed the New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. the State of New York lawsuit. The NYSER lawsuit charges that the state is neglecting its constitutional obligation to ensure that every school has sufficient funding to provide all students with a meaningful educational opportunity.

Now that the lawsuit has been filed, many individuals and groups will tackle the hard work of spreading the word about the case and the issues it represents. CEE has started preparing tools to help you explain and disseminate information about the lawsuit and the state of education funding in New York. These will be especially important as we face a governor who seems to prefer to perpetuate tired myths to facing the facts about students’ needs.

To help you dispel such myths, CEE has created a fact sheet, Setting the Record Straight: The Truth About School Funding in New York. Click here to read and share.

And check out these other useful tools related to NYSER and the new lawsuit,

NYSER v. State Frequently Asked Questions

NYSER v. State Press Release

NYSER v. State Complaint

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Major New Funding Litigation Filed in New York State

Fifteen parents from throughout New York State, along with a coalition of statewide education groups, filed a lawsuit yesterday on behalf of the state’s public school students, charging that the state is neglecting its constitutional obligation to ensure that every school has sufficient funding to provide all students a meaningful educational opportunity. The suit, entitled New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. the State of New York, is being led by Michael A. Rebell, who successfully litigated the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. the State of New York case.

The suit alleges that, in many schools around the state, schools are unable to provide students with the full range of resources that are constitutionally required because of limited budgets. In these schools, students share textbooks and can’t take books home after school. Classrooms are overcrowded at a time when higher standards require even more individualized support. Tutoring and other supports for students who are struggling academically are rationed only to a few children. Advanced and AP classes; art and music programs, and important extracurricular activities like school government and school newspaper have been severely cut back or eliminated in many schools. College and career counseling is nonexistent in many places. Even state-required instruction in areas like science, social studies, physical education, and foreign languages has been curtailed.

“In spite of the persistent demands of parents, students, educators, and advocates, the state government has continued to neglect its responsibility to our students,” said Rebell. “The governor’s education reform commission, on which I sat, refused to even consider these issues. We have no other recourse but to go back to court. Too many of our children will continue to suffer the lifelong consequences of an inadequate education – and New York will continue to bear this economic burden – if we do not take action now.”

The plaintiffs include 15 individual parents and students from New York City and all parts of the state and New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER), a statewide coalition that was recently formed to bring the lawsuit and to promote public engagement by parents, students, administrators, teachers, advocates, and the public at large to support its aims. The defendants are the State of New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Board of Regents, and State Education Commissioner John King.

NYSER represents the interests of students and their families; its members include the Center for Children’s Initiatives, Class Size Matters, the New York City Parents Union, NYC Community Education Councils 5, 6, and 28, the New York State Association of School Business Officials, the New York State Council of School Superintendents, the New York State Parent Teachers Association, the New York State School Boards Association, Parents for Public Schools of Syracuse, Inc., Reform Educational Finance Inequities Today, Rural Schools Association, and the Statewide School Finance Consortium. Additional organizations are expected to join NYSER in the near future.

The lawsuit seeks to win a rapid court decision that will (1) provide immediate relief for schools by forcing the state to end unconstitutional practices that currently preclude adequate funding for schools; and (2) order new reforms to the state education law and the state’s school financing system to guarantee that now and for the future every school is provided adequate funding and is able provide all students a meaningful educational opportunity.

“Our goal is to end the state government’s neglect of its constitutional responsibility to ensure that all New York schools have sufficient funding to meet students’ educational needs,” said Rebell. “While Governor Cuomo claims that the state spends more on education than any other state in the nation, the reality is that the state contains some of the highest spending and highest achieving school districts in the country, but the distribution of education spending is more inequitable than in most other states, and vast numbers of students throughout the state are not being provided a meaningful educational opportunity.”

CEE will provide news and updates on NYSER through Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about how you can join or support NYSER, please send an email to NYSERcoalition@gmail.com. Basic information about the lawsuit, including the complaint, can be found at NYSER’s website address: www.NYSER.org.

CEE’s Analysis of Governor Cuomo’s 2014-2015 Executive Budget Proposals for Education

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposals for 2014-15, while not without some bright points, were largely disappointing, ignoring the ongoing effects on our students — and the risk to New York’s economic future — of the state’s failure to meet its constitutional school-funding obligations.

The good news was that, building on recommendations from his New NY Education Commission, the governor committed the state to implement universal, high-quality full-day prekindergarten programs, entirely funded by the state, within five years. In addition, he proposed a new $2 billion bond act that would provide for enhanced education technology in the schools and additional construction of new prekindergarten classroom space.

The bad news is that the governor’s proposal continues to underfund basic K-12 school operations. His budget actually would provide a substantially smaller increase in basic foundation aid than he proposed and the legislature enacted last year, and it would maintain for the foreseeable future the unconstitutional “gap elimination adjustment” that under his plan would deprive students throughout the state of approximately $1.3 billion for the next school year.

I.            Progress on Pre-K

Last year Governor Cuomo announced his support for full-day prekindergarten programs for students in high-need school districts and proposed a $25 million competitive grant program to initiate the effort. This year, he has taken a major leap beyond that initial gesture. The executive budget proposes that the state achieve universal full-day pre-K for all students within five years. For 2014-15, his budget would commit $100 million toward this program, and he anticipates that the state commitment would grow “by at least” an additional $100 million per year for the four years after that. (This funding would be on top of the approximately $385 million the state currently expends to support half-day pre-K in 441 of the state’s 697 school districts.)

Cuomo’s proposal implies that once the state reaches a funding plateau of $500 million above current annual expenditures for full-day pre-K in five years, the funding needs for universal pre-K statewide will have been met. A detailed analysis undertaken by the Campaign for Educational Equity and the Center for Children’s Initiatives last fall indicated that approximately double that amount, or $1 billion in increased funding, would actually be needed to support a high-quality universal statewide program. Cuomo has provided no cost figures or analysis to explain how he arrived at his substantially lower figure.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is still asserting that the city needs to impose a new income surtax on very high-income taxpayers in order to guarantee an effective, high-quality full-day pre-K program for all of the city’s four year olds. De Blasio’s position has merit. Twice in recent years, the state has announced a commitment to achieve universal pre-K (albeit for half-day programs) by a future target date, and both times it has failed to achieve that end. In 1997, the legislature adopted a “LADDER program” that promised full funding for universal pre-K within five years; again, in 2007, Governor Eliot Spitzer promised that this time full funding for universal pre-K would be accomplished in four years. In both of these situations, after two years of increased funding, political support dwindled, the program stalled, and the state remains far from achieving either of these universal pre-K goals.

De Blasio’s “millionaires’ tax” would raise $500 million per year, of which the mayor would allocate $342 million to fund universal pre-K. The $342 full-funding estimate may, however, fall short of the mark. De Blasio bases his figure on an expectation that a high-quality program can be provided in New York City for about $10,000 a year. Such high-quality programs for high-need children have been achieved in the “Abbott” districts in New Jersey, but at a cost of $13,000-$14,000 per year. Governor Cuomo’s promised state funding for full-day pre-K may, therefore, be important as a necessary supplement that can ensure that New York City’s program will be successfully mounted without any budgetary shortfalls.

The remaining approximately $190 million that Mayor de Blasio expects to obtain from his “millionaires’ tax” he would use to provide afterschool programs to two-thirds of the middle school students in the city. Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal also seeks to upstage Mayor de Blasio in this area, as the governor called for a new state afterschool funding program that would provide $200 million per year statewide by year 5. Here again, the amount the governor identified seems inadequate to the need, and no figures explaining this rate have been provided. More troubling, the possibility of these afterschool funds actually materializing seems even more ephemeral than the pre-K funds, since Cuomo includes no additional afterschool funding in his 2014-15 budget proposal and anticipates initiating the program in 2015-16—after his desired reelection.

II.         RETREAT ON K-12 FUNDING

The governor’s budget proposal calls for an increase of $608 million in formula-based aid for K-12 programs in school districts for 2014-15. About $285 million of this amount would support increased reimbursement in expense-based programs such as building aid, pupil transportation, and BOCES support. Only $323 million would be provided for foundation aid, the core operating funds that support basic instructional programs. Technically, the $323 million is not even an increase; rather it is a reduction in the approximately $1.6 billion “temporary” gap elimination adjustment (GEA), a ruse by which the state has, for the past four years, subtracted substantial amounts from the foundation aid owed to school districts in order to cover a supposed shortfall in the state’s overall budget.

Since the governor announced that the state actually has a budget surplus this year that he proposed to use to reduce a variety of business, estate, and property taxes, the avowed justification for continuing the “gap elimination adjustment” no longer exists. In any event, subtracting sums from the amount that the legislature itself has determined is necessary to provide students the opportunity for a sound basic education is a violation of Article XI § 1 of the state constitution. (And the foundation aid base from which the current GEA is being subtracted is itself substantially below the full amount that the legislature determined in the wake of the CFE litigation in 2007 was necessary to meet constitutional requirements. Even with the governor’s slight reduction in the GEA this year, the full shortfall actually comes to approximately $3.5 billion.)

The cap on increases in property tax levies that the governor and the legislature enacted on school districts other than the Big Five cities several years ago will also be more severe this year. Although the cap is generally perceived to amount to 2%, this year the way the applicable formula works out, districts will only be able to raise their taxes by a maximum of 1.46% without obtaining a 60% taxpayer vote. The governor’s tax relief proposals would make it even more difficult for school districts in need of greater increases to obtain the 60% supermajority, since his plan would rebate to each taxpayer the district’s tax increase, but only if the increase is below the cap.

Last year, the legislature increased formula-based aids to school districts by $937 million, a 4.7% increase. The governor’s current $608 million proposal would provide only a 2.91% increase this year. Under the governor’s meager scheme, New York City would receive a 2.76% increase, $200 million (not counting building aid), Syracuse would receive a 1.74% increase, and Buffalo would see only a 1.72% increase. The Education Conference Board estimates that school districts will need at least a 3.7% increase just to meet mandatory cost increases and maintain current programs and staffing levels.

We hope the legislature will not accept the governor’s low figures and will be much more proactive in meeting the pressing educational needs of New York State’s students and guaranteeing their constitutional rights.