Former Gov. Spitzer Underscores NY’s Constitutional School-Funding Obligation

In late January, I wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News that took issue with the position espoused a few days earlier in an op-ed by Paul Francis, currently a Deputy Secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and formerly the Budget Director for Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Francis had claimed that the Foundation Aid formula, the state’s primary mechanism for distributing school funding, that was adopted by the New York State legislature in 2007, was merely “aspirational” and had not been a constitutionally mandated response to the Court of Appeals’ orders in the CFE litigation.

Yesterday’s Times Union op-ed by former Gov. Spitzer fully confirms that the Foundation Aid formula was indeed “constitutionally mandated.” Below is Spitzer’s statement.

Michael A. Rebell

Times Union, 2/15/17: Funding our schools adequately has long been viewed as a moral imperative. In 2006, it also became a constitutional imperative.

That year, the New York Court of Appeals, our highest court, issued a final ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, holding that all children in New York state have the constitutional right to a “sound basic education.” Unfortunately, the court also found we were failing to fulfill that obligation.

The bipartisan budget that was enacted in 2007 confronted this failure and constitutional obligation directly — we substituted a backroom politically driven funding process that had both underfunded and misallocated education aid with a new Foundation Aid formula. We put in place a data-driven overhaul of the way New York funded its public schools. The court ruling created a legal imperative that brought political agreement to an arena traditionally fraught with divisiveness.

The Foundation Aid formula was proposed and enacted as a direct result of the CFE litigation. As contentious as school funding debates had often been, there was agreement that Foundation Aid was a principled and constitutionally mandated step forward. The Republican Senate majority said the Foundation Aid formula fulfilled “the mandate of the Court of Appeals decision in CFE vs. The State of New York,” and the Democratic Assembly leadership said it “addresses the court-ordered requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.”

The new formula responded to the Court of Appeals’ order that the state “align funding with need” based upon the “actual costs” of providing a “sound basic education.” The new Foundation Aid formula calculated these actual costs and recognized that the programs and services needed by students who are economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities, and English language learners are often more costly.

The new structure of Foundation Aid was designed to increase classroom operating aid by $5.5 billion statewide, phased in over four years — plus an allowance for inflation, as ordered by the Court. In the 2007-08 and 2008-09 state budgets, the funding increases were delivered on schedule.

But in the years since, the formula has been chronically underfunded. As a result, New York is now in the company of states like Mississippi and Georgia where, year-in and year-out, funding formulas are consistently ignored to the detriment of students.

And today, a decade later, as a consequence, we see in far too many schools the same conditions that led to the CFE lawsuit in the first place. That’s why I am especially disappointed that the current budget proposal would eliminate the Foundation Aid formula entirely and, with it, the $4.3 billion still owed under the formula to our schools.

The lack of funding means that, across New York, we will continue to see the glaring educational deficits we intended to address through funding the Foundation Aid formula. Elementary-grade classes are crowded with 30 students or more. Schools lack enough specialized teachers for English language learners. Guidance counselors serve 400 to 800 students, leaving little opportunity for individualized attention for students. School libraries operate with reduced hours. Summer school classes and tutoring are in short supply for students who have fallen behind and are at risk of dropping out.

New York can and must do better. We all now acknowledge that as a moral, constitutional and economic imperative we have to invest properly in the education of our children. Yet today we still are not providing children with what they are entitled to and deserve — the opportunity for a “sound basic education.”

The good news is that the solution is still on the books. Foundation Aid was enacted to comply with the court order in CFE. It’s time for the state to fund the formula fully, not repeal it.

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