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.
[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


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s