Governor Andrew Cuomo raised expectations when he said in his State of the State and budget address, “Let’s make a big change.” His budget proposals for education, however, fall far short of the change students’ need. For 2016-17, the governor would increase basic school operating funds only $457 million, about 25% of what the state education department said schools need for next year—and less than half of the increase the legislature appropriated last year. This amount covers foundation aid plus some reduction in the gap elimination adjustment (GEA), a small amount of which would continue for another year.
Cuomo packaged his total proposed FY 2017 school-funding increase as providing $1.4 billion, a 6.1% increase over last year, but this is highly misleading. About $400 million would reimburse school districts for monies already spent for items like transportation and school buildings. And over $400 million would go to non-public schools. At a time when the public schools continue to be denied adequate state aid, the governor is proposing to spend $120 million for scholarships and tax credits to allow some students to attend private schools and to increase aid to non-public schools by $300 million to reimburse them for “state-mandated activities.”
Cuomo’s proposal badly neglects the actual needs of New York State’s public school students. In 2007, following the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decisions, the state calculated the actual cost of providing students throughout the state the “opportunity for a sound basic education” that the courts had held to be their constitutional right. That amount was approximately $5.5 billion, and the legislature committed to increasing state foundation aid by that amount over four years. This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the final CFE decision, and New York students are still waiting for full constitutional funding.
The state provided substantial increases in 2007 and 2008, but, once the recession hit, the governor and the legislature first froze and then slashed education aid. They did this despite that, as a matter of law, state financial constraints cannot justify the denial of a constitutional right. At present, with inflationary increases, the shortfall in foundation aid is over $4.8 billion. This means that the governor’s school-funding increase would cover only 10% of the current deficit.
To make matters worse for students and schools, the governor and the legislature have also imposed a cap on the amount school districts (other than New York City and the other “Big Five” urban districts) can raise local property taxes for school-funding increases. That cap this year will allow virtually no local tax increases for most districts. This means that citizens willing to tax themselves at higher rates to compensate for the state’s continuing failure to fund their schools adequately will not be able to do so.
The only bright spot in the governor’s state aid proposal was his recommendation for $100 million to allow the state’s lowest performing schools to become “community schools.” This amount is not likely to allow these schools to provide the full range of comprehensive services that their students need — especially with the low foundation the amounts the governor would allow them. However, it does represent some recognition from a governor who has long supported charter-school expansion and the funneling of public funds to private schools that poverty affects students and schools. For many students living in poverty, access to health care, counseling, expanded learning opportunities, and family engagement are necessary for a meaningful educational opportunity.
Fortunately the governor’s executive budget is just a proposal. The state legislature must act on it. In past years, our legislators have provided substantially more state aid for education than the governor recommended. This year he has given them an even bigger job to do.