Editorial: Fairness in school funding for everyone

Editorial: Fairness in school funding for everyone

A not-for-profit advocacy organization filed a lawsuit in 1993 arguing that the state of New York was failing to provide the money needed to meet New York City public school students’ constitutional right to a “sound basic education.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity won its original suit only to face repeated appeals by then Gov. George Pataki and the State of New York before the case was finally settled in the advocacy organizations’s favor in 2006 – after 13 years in court.

The state Legislature then voted in 2007 to provide funding to schools called foundation aid based on a school district’s need to meet the state’s obligation to students, many of whom were black and brown.

But over the next 14 years, the state Legislature failed to fully fund foundation aid and was sued again.

In 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul reached a settlement with another group, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights, in which the state agreed to fully fund the current foundation aid formula by 2024.

The result was large increases in foundation aid over the past two years and a record budget proposal of $35.3 billion for public schools for 2024-2025 that fully funds foundation aid – 31 years after the first lawsuit was filed.

”Between the additional state investment in the last three enacted budgets and the infusion of an additional $13 billion in extraordinary federal aid, New York’s public schools have realized $20 billion in increased aid in just over three years’ time,” Division of Budget Director Blake Washington said in an op-ed that appeared in Empire Report.

This at a time when New York has the highest per-pupil spending of all 50 states. New York currently spends $24,040 per pupil, approximately 90% above the national average.

By contrast, Florida and Texas, popular destinations for New Yorkers leaving the state that are often lauded for their affordability, spend $,9,983 and $9,872 per pupil. This goes a long way to explaining how the two states are so affordable.

Nassau County school districts would see an overall increase of 4.89% in state aid under Hochul’s proposed budget.

But many Long Island school districts and local elected officials are not happy with Hochul’s plans. This includes school districts on the North Shore where per pupil spending is as high as $47,000 and many are near or at $40,000.

They point out that 40 of the 117 Long Island School Districts would see a decrease in state aid, some as much as 10%.

“It is shameful for Gov. Hochul to propose a state budget with Draconian cuts to over 40 Long Island school districts while providing billions to pay for the ongoing migrant crisis,” Republican Long Island Congressmen Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04), Andrew Garbarino (NY-02) and Nick LaLota (NY-01) said in a joint please.

This was shortly before Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson refused to allow a vote on legislation that would have closed the southern border as well as provided aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

State Sen. Jack Martin (R-7th Senate District) titled the op-ed that appeared in Blank Slate Media’s six newspapers and website last week “They’re Cutting Bone.”

We appreciate Martins pointing out the pain suffered by school districts that are underfunded.

But if the cuts some districts are now experiencing – after years of state aid increases – are cutting bone, what was—and is— it like for all those school districts that have been underfunded for decades?

One of the major complaints from Long Island school districts and elected officials is Hochul’s proposal to end a provision called “hold harmless.” This policy guarantees that districts always get at least as much school aid as in the previous year.

This certainly is helpful in doing annual budgets. We’re sure every business would love to have that sort of support.

But the hold harmless provision ignores changes that take place over time in wealth and population that impact a district’s needs.

Over the past 10 years – from 2012-13 to 2022-23 – some districts have seen large increases in population. Some have seen large decreases.

On the North Shore, Carle Place’s population dropped 8.9%, East Williston 8.2% and Manhasset 8.1% while Herricks grew 12.8%, Floral Park-Bellorose 8.6% and Mineola 6.1%.

Should districts with declining populations not see decreases in state aid?

If not, the guaranteed money might come out of the increases needed by districts whose populations are growing. Or the state budget might grow unnecessarily.

For those concerned with saving taxpayer dollars, guaranteeing budget increases regardless of need seems like a bad idea.

Long Island school districts also question how New York is defining state aid.

The districts point out that Hochul’s budget is incorrectly counting money allocated for pre-K education as part of state aid when New York policy is that it should be counted outside the budget.

The districts do appear to have a point, albeit a technical one.

But the counting of pre-K money can have large consequences – especially for districts not offering pre-K.

In the case of Manhasset, Hochul’s proposed budget shows a $442,568 increase in state aid – from $5,250,148 to $5,693,716. But that includes $1 million in pre-K that the district won’t receive because it does not have a pre-K program.

That means the district will only receive $4,692,716 – $511,000 less than 2023-2024. And  even lower than 2022-23 when Manhasset received about $5 million.

Manhasset School Superintendent Gaurav Passi recently said that when combined with rising health insurance and pension costs, the decrease in state aid is creating “significant pressure” on the district.

We then understand the call for more state aid from every school superintendent and parent. They are concerned about the futures of their students as well as the large impact the quality of a school district has on property values.

Still, there is a philosophical question about providing foundation aid to an affluent district such as Manhasset, where per pupil spending is more than $35,334.

Why should money raised primarily in income taxes from across the state be used to subsidize wealthy districts? Other than the obvious political answer.

There is an alternative to state aid – property taxes.

Property taxes are the main source of revenue for districts across the state and the reason for the large differences in spending per pupil between affluent districts and less affluent public schools.

Manhasset, like any other district, can choose to boost the amount they raise in property taxes above the state tax cap by getting a vote of 60% or more in its upcoming budget vote.

The so-called 2% state tax cap on local school budgets has always been an impediment for school districts with relatively low per-pupil spending trying to close the gap with districts with high per-pupil spending.

And it would be one for any more affluent district with high per-pupil spending.

But it could be done.

Schools in Nassau County do enjoy a special protection on property tax collection shared nowhere else in the state – the county guaranty.

That guaranty says that if a taxpayer successfully challenges his or her taxes, the county will bear the cost, not the school district.

Then Nassau Executive Ed Mangano attempted to get rid of the guaranty to help fix the county’s finances, but school districts managed to get the bill killed in the state Legislature by citing the negative impact on their finances.

Given the county’s assessment system, this was not an unreasonable concern.

School districts have again turned to the Legislature to block any cuts to state aid in the state budget.

“I am committed to joining my colleagues in the Democratic Assembly and Senate Majorities to remove the proposed cuts from the final budget,” Democratic state Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti said, echoing her Republican counterparts on Long Island.  “Similar to past years’ negotiations, this would be done during the final budget process.”

This would require the state to yet once against disregard the foundation aid formula.

That would be defensible only if the money does not come at the expense of public school students who have been shortchanged for decades.


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