Governor Cuomo’s Education Budget Proposals Ignore Children’s Needs and Violate the Constitution

In the budget message he delivered last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to increase state aid to education by $1.1 billion for 2015-16-but only if the legislature adopts his highly controversial package of education “reforms.” His reform agenda centers on tax credits for contributions to private schools, changes to the charter-school cap, and a significant revision of the teacher-evaluation law. If these changes are not adopted, the governor will ask the legislature to increase funding by only $377 million, an amount that will barely cover legally required increases in “expense-based aids,” such as transportation and building aid, that mostly go to retroactive payments for services delivered and facilities built in the past. In essence, if the governor does not get his desired education-policy changes, New York State’s students will receive virtually no increase in state aid and, given inflation and other mandatory cost increases, the level of educational services, which in many school districts is already highly inadequate,[1] will take an additional hit.

Tying State School Aid to Policy Change Violates Students’ Rights

Making state funding for a sound basic education contingent on specific education policies, good or bad, infringes New York students’ educational rights. The New York Court of Appeals held in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York [2] that state aid for education must be calibrated to student need and must be based on “the actual cost” of providing all students the opportunity for a sound basic education. If $1.1 billion is the budget increase that the governor has decided is needed to provide a sound basic education, then a threat to provide less than that amount is in direct contravention of Article XI § 1 of the state constitution and of the governor’s oath to uphold the constitution.

School-Aid Amount Is Inadequate and Not Based on Student Need

Even more problematic is that Governor Cuomo has ignored the Court of Appeals’ expectation that the state determine the actual cost of a sound basic education through an objective analysis of students’ needs. The figures the governor has put forward are not grounded in any such analysis. Instead, they come from a purely budgetary and political calculation that ignores existing resource inadequacies and the additional costs of implementing the new requirements of such policies as Common Core standards, Response to Intervention (RTI), the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), new pathways to high school graduation, and full-day universal prekindergarten.

The New York State Board of Regents recently recommended an increase in state aid of approximately $2 billion for 2015-16. This recommendation was based on a careful consideration of student needs and of the cost of some of the major new programs listed above, as well increased support for English language learners, coverage for enrollment increases, and other educational needs. Even with a $2 billion increase, the Regents acknowledge, funding would not reach a constitutionally compliant level. The foundation-aid formula that the legislature adopted in 2007 in response to the CFE litigation, and based on an extensive cost study undertaken by the state education department, calls for an increase in state aid of approximately $5.6 billion. This is the amount needed to provide students access to a sufficient number of qualified teachers; reasonable class sizes; up-to-date textbooks and technology; services and supports for students who are academically below grade level, students with disabilities, and English language learners; and all of the other elements of a sound basic education as defined by the courts and as calculated by the state itself in accordance with the statutory foundation-aid formula.

Tax Credit Plan Is Unconstitutional

The governor’s neglect of the students’ educational rights under the state constitution does not end with the inadequate funding increase. One of the so-called “reforms” to which the governor would hold state aid hostage is a plan that would provide tax credits of 75% of amounts up to $1 million for donations to “school improvement organizations, local education funds and educational scholarship organizations.” At a time when our public schools are severely underfunded, it is simply shameful for the governor to call for siphoning public tax money off to private schools and other entities favored by wealthy individuals. Even though some of these funds can also be given to public schools, the notion that individual donors can choose the schools that will receive extra money, instead of determining, through proper public procedures, where available tax revenues should best be directed, also violates constitutional precepts.

Universal Full-Day Pre-K Has Been Shortchanged

Last year, prodded by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s insistence on full-day prekindergarten for all four year olds in New York City, the governor initiated a plan to provide full-day pre-K to all four year olds in the state within five years. He committed $1.5 billion to this project over the five-year period, including a $340 million allocation in the current year’s budget, $300 million of which was earmarked for New York City. To expand the program and ensure its quality in its second year and beyond, careful attention to its programmatic needs and planning to ensure sustained and stable financing are essential.[3] For 2015-16, the state’s plans should include an increase of at least $150 million for districts outside New York City to expand access to full-day pre-K for 15,000 more children; an additional $100 million to ensure high-quality pre-K for students in New York City; a shift to a periodic, predictable schedule for cost reimbursements to school districts; and a requirement that all community programs be under one manageable supervisory umbrella. The governor’s proposal ignores these needs and maintains funding for four year olds at last year’s level (plus a $25 million federal grant). To his credit, the governor does propose a $25 million appropriation for new full-day programs for three year olds.

There are other positive proposals in the governor’s education package, like creating a teacher-residency program and supporting expansion of the master teacher and P-Tech programs. However, the governor’s budget allocates relatively small amounts ($39 million) to these worthwhile initiatives.

A broad-based group of parents and educational organizations from around the state is challenging the governor’s unconstitutional approach to school funding in New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. State of New York [4], a lawsuit filed in February 2014. Since it will take some time for the Court of Appeals to issue a final ruling in this case, the members of the state legislature should live up to their constitutional obligations, reject the governor’s illegal and inadequate approach to funding, and ensure that the state’s education-finance system provides an opportunity for a sound basic education to all students.
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[1] For a detailed discussion of the extent to which students in high-need schools throughout the state are being deprived of constitutionally mandated educational services, see Michael A. Rebell, Jessica R. Wolff, and Joseph R. Rogers, Jr., Deficient Resources: An Analysis of the Availability of Basic Educational Resources in High Needs Schools in Eight New York State School Districts (Campaign for Educational Equity, 2012.)

[2] 100 N.Y. 2d 893 (2003).

[3] The Campaign for Educational Equity and the Center for Children’s Initiatives recently issued a report that specifies the programmatic improvements and funding increases that are needed to achieve high-quality pre-kindergarten for all three and four year olds in the State of New York over an eight-year period.

[4] For information regarding the NYSER litigation, see www.nyser.org.

 

Views expressed by the Campaign for Educational Equity or its staff do not necessarily reflect the views of Teachers College.

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New York Times Challenges Governor Cuomo to Face Educational Reality in State of State

Yesterday, the New York Times, which two years ago published an article about our research revealing the effects of the state’s systemic failure to ensure that all students can access at least a basic set of educational opportunities, called on Governor Cuomo to address the “inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards” (access the full editorial, “The Central Crisis in New York Education” here).

The major gaps in educational opportunities came as no surprise to many parents, students, and educators for whom they are an everyday reality with real-life consequences, but many people were shocked by the depth and range of the inadequacies. Some schools in New York City and other underfunded districts around the state were unable to provide students a complete basic curriculum, much less additional instructional support for students struggling to meet state standards; teachers and parents regularly spent hundreds of dollars on basic instructional materials because schools couldn’t; and students with disabilities and English language learners were taught in inappropriate settings or received inadequate support, simply for lack of space and personnel. And those are just a few examples.

As the Times reminds readers, the State Board of Regents, which governs education policy in New York, last month strongly advised the governor that the additional accountability reforms he wants to push through would have minimal impact “unless they were paired with new investments along the lines of the $2 billion in extra spending that the regents had recommended earlier . . . to address the ‘deeply disturbing inequalities in resources’ that exist between poor and wealthy districts.”

To put that proposed one-time $2 billion increase in context, in 2007 the state legislature and then-Governor Spitzer promised an additional $7 billion a year in order to ensure all children at least the basics, and a lawsuit filed in February 2014 by New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights asserts that the state is still $5.6 billion below that annual commitment.

Over the past few years, the Campaign for Educational Equity team has advanced this issue through extensive research and engagement activities like community-based, educational-rights workshops, teen-produced rights-focused performances, user-friendly handouts to help families and the larger public understand the educational opportunities required by state law. We are currently spearheading a statewide task force that draws upon the expertise of a range of educators and other education stakeholders and experts. The group’s mission is to develop a coherent set of proposals for updating New York’s education regulations and funding policies in a way that truly fosters excellence and equity for all students. Everyone at the table understands that policy change without adequate resources for meeting student’s basic educational needs may be good politics but is bad governance and bad for children.

Will the governor get it right in his “State of the State” address on January 21st? Does he understand that millions of New York children struggle to meet state standards less because the policies need to be tweaked but because the state continues to ignore its obligation to supply basic educational resources to all students no matter their race, class, or neighborhood?

We’ll see, soon enough.