With four weeks to go before the state budget is due to be finalized, advocates for increased spending on education came to the Capitol on Monday to show their work.
The Alliance for Quality Education and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity met with sympathetic members of the Assembly Democratic conference, who heard the results of the advocates’ statewide tour through 14 hard-pressed districts, including several in the Capital Region.
The report listed “educational resource deficiencies” that were familiar to the platoon of school leaders — ranging from increased class size and libraries being repurposed for classrooms to staff cuts and the reduction of pre-K programs from full to- half-day. The tour began with stops in Hoosick Falls, Cohoes, Schenectady and Amsterdam.
“The state is systematically underfunding the schools,” said Billy Easton, executive director of AQE, a group which receives funding from unions including New York State United Teachers.
Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Queens, the chair of the chamber’s education committee, said the Democratic conference would push to increase the amount of funding outlined in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget plan, which calls for almost $700 million in added formula-based aid and $100 million as an initial investment in universal statewide full-day pre-kindergarten.
“Politics is supposed to be the sweet spot between what you absolutely need (and) what you absolutely have,” said Nolan, who said that she thought the state could move ahead with the pre-K expansion despite the inventory of woes Easton had just described.
David Sciarra of the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, which has taken over the CFE’s legal efforts, said the tour also provided evidence for potential use in a sequel of sorts to the original CFE lawsuit, which was thought to have been resolved by the 2007 establishment of a state foundation aid formula.
Advocates argue that the state has failed to live up to its end of that agreement, resulting in an estimated $5 billion gap in funding.
A flurry of lawsuits related to school aid is already in motion: An action brought by so-called “small-cities” districts is scheduled to go to trial in September. A recent ruling in that case, Maisto v. New York, cleared the way for suits that involve claims of “palpably inadequate” funding.
“We’re hopeful that the Legislature in response to this report substantially increases the amount of funding through the formula in this budget,” Sciarra said. “But I’m here to tell you that were going to continue gathering this evidence, and if necessary there can be additional litigation that could be brought to address what are clear constitutional inadequacies in many of the school districts that we visited.”
Schenectady City Schools Superintendent Larry Spring has filed a federal complaint that argues the state’s aid formula discriminates against poor and minority students. At Monday’s news conference, Spring said his district received roughly 54 percent of the aid due to it under the formula — a short-changing of more than $62 million per year.
“That results in significant over-taxing of the citizens of Schenectady,” Spring said. “It also means that in one of the poorest cities in the state, children are dramatically under-served.”
Spring said the impediments presented by the “intense poverty” suffered by a disproportionate number of his students was exacerbated by the lack of resources at their schools.
Spring said the district is trying to bridge a $10 million budget gap this year. “We’re having to consider whether or not we can continue to offer kindergarten,” he said. “We have to consider whether or not we need to cut back on our social workers and our guidance counselors. We’ve already begun cutting back on our remedial services.”
“This is an extraordinarily needy community. The patently unfair nature in which school aid is distributed is choking the city and it’s destroying the lives of kids.”
While the annual budget negotiation frequently involves a certain amount of haggling that invariably results in a politically popular increase in school aid, this year’s debate is especially sharp due to the governor’s desire to use a projected budget surplus to fund tax cuts in an election year.
Cuomo has frequently pointed to New York’s highest-in-the-nation spending per pupil, and argued that more money isn’t always the answer to education challenges.
Easton suggested gaining $400 million for additional school aid by scrapping Cuomo’s proposed property tax freeze and $100 million by preserving the 18A surcharge on utility bills. None of the lawmakers on hand chimed in to agree with him.
Here’s Spring talking about what his district is up against: