For more than a week, a small but determined group of public school advocates, have undertaken an ambitious and heartfelt journey: a walk of 150 miles from New York City to Albany to deliver a message. That message? Pay up. After ten years of delays, excuses, cuts, and broken promises, it is past time for lawmakers and the governor to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that was decided in 2006. That landmark ruling, itself the result of 13 years of advocacy and litigation, found that the state was failing its obligation to provide schools with the resources they needed for all children to have a “sound basic education.” Between 2007 and 2009, the state worked out a new foundational aid formula and committed to increasing school aid across the state by 5.5 billion dollars a year.
Today, Albany remains $3.9 billion short of that goal. Every year. Ten years after the court ruled that increased aid was necessary. So activists are walking from the steps of Tweed Courthouse in New York City to Albany to deliver the bill:
Albany has not always been so stubbornly unwilling to pay the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) settlement. In fact, immediately after the settlement, Albany rewrote the aid formula and began to phase in the additional money, increasing state aid to schools by 2.3 billion dollars. Unfortunately, twin crises for education in the Empire State struck nearly simultaneously. The first was the Great Recession which narrowed state tax revenues and threw the budget out of balance. This was unavoidable given the nature of the fiscal crisis across the entire country. The second crisis was the election of Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2010. This was probably avoidable although it was an open question at the time about just how horrible the governor would be.
Beginning with Governor Cuomo’s predecessor, Governor David Patterson, New York embarked on a two year budget overhaul aimed at reducing state spending by $5 billion in only two years without considering tax increases. State aid to education took an immediate hit both in the total amount allocated and in the form of an accounting gimmick called the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Using the GEA, Albany could announce a school aid budget but then take some of that money back from communities if state revenues were too low. According to the New York State School Boards Association, by the 2014 school year, this policy, continued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, had cost the state’s schools over $8.5 billion of total aid, or more than $3 million per district per year. Additionally, Governor Cuomo pushed through a property tax cap early in his first term that has squeezed districts from the other side, limiting the revenue they can raise locally. While state aid to school has crept up over time, it was only in this year’s budget address that he suggested ending the GEA by increasing state aid over a two year window. The effect of that is apparently a wash – ending the continued poaching of school aid to plug the rest of the budget but making no actual progress towards meeting CFE obligations.
While the Patterson budgets may have cut out of response to an acute crisis (although the refusal to consider tax increases may have made that crisis worse), Andrew Cuomo has no such excuse and hasn’t for years. He simply prefers keeping taxes low over paying for the educational outcomes he demands from teachers and schools. He also prefers to keep promised aid in reserve to demand policy concessions on education during the budget process even though education policy in New York resides with the Board of Regents. In his 2015 budget address, he promised an increase in state aid of over a billion dollars – but only if his absolutely dreadful test and punish teacher evaluation priorities were enacted within the budget. It appears that to Andrew Cuomo, the CFE settlement is not an agreement reached in court and legislated by the Assembly and Senate; rather, it is a lever that he can use to push through major changes in education policy without having to use proper channels.
Worse still, Governor Cuomo is a proponent of one of the worst habits among executives and legislators who are more interested in cutting spending than in quality education. Call it “enoughism” if you will. According to this point of view, if a governor or lawmaker can point to a nominally large amount of money, he can say that it is evident that we spend “enough” because the amount of money is, again, large. Cuomo made this very clear in 2014 when he said, “We spend more than any other state in the country. It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it – and the results.”
The attraction of this reasoning is obvious. States spend nominally large sums on public education. If you are having trouble keeping your budget in balance and have ruled out increased taxes, trimming that sum is a tremendous temptation. Further, the number is likely to be large enough to impress constituents. The 2016 budget recommendations from the Cuomo administration called for $24.22 billion in school aid. In anybody’s personal experience that is a tremendous amount of money, and it averages out to $9,131 per K-12 student in the state. Once you add on local revenue and various federal sources for education, and you get a statewide average above $19,000 per student each year.
Is that enough?
The answer to that question is dependent not upon the amount spent, as Governor Cuomo insists, but upon what needs to be spent to meet the requirement of a quality education for every child- which is an entirely different question. Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University has been consistent and clear on this in New York: 1) New York’s estimate on the need was lowballed and then underfunded; 2) New York’s school financing system is inequitable; 3) This has had tangible detrimental impacts, especially in small cities upstate; 4) These detrimental impacts have fed into an accountability system that punishes districts already struggling. In fact, Dr. Baker found that most of the districts consistently criticized by the governor for poor performance are also the most underfunded districts.
It isn’t enough to simply look at large numbers and declare that they are “enough” by virtue of being large. You have to identify the actual cost of doing the work properly and evaluate your spending from that starting point.
Dr. Baker’s analysis is technical, but it is unlikely that any New York parents of school aged children have not noticed the struggles in their districts. $3 million a year in GEA funding cuts compounded over 7 years alone is a huge impact even without accounting for the missing foundational aid. In some New York City schools, parents are asked to raise funds so their schools can hire reading intervention specialists. Some schools might be able to use Federal Title I funds for such essential personnel, but there is no guarantee, and besides, literacy is a core academic mission of K-12 schooling. It is fairly obvious that when any school has to fund raise for reading teachers that basic funding is inadequate and that a rich program including the arts and languages and science will suffer. This is a story that is replicated daily across the Empire State, and especially in schools where parents cannot possibly raise half a million dollars in a single year.
Governor Cuomo’s office has called the 150 mile walk to Albany a “stunt.” It is anything but. It is a reminder that our elected officials in Albany have had ten years to fulfill a promise to New York’s children. Enough is enough.