After Three Decades, New York Legislature Finally Passes Budget To Equalize Public School Funding

In 2007, New York State agreed to comply with a court mandate to invest five and a half billion dollars over four years—and maintain the investment annually—to equalize school funding in a state with vast differences in wealth and alarming disparities in public school funding across its 688 public school districts.  But in 2008, when the Great Recession hit, New York never invested the promised money in the education of the state’s children.

Last week, however, when both chambers of the state legislature agreed on the 2021-2022 state budget, New York promised once again to invest substantially in the education of its children and finally to comply with the court’s requirement, under the decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, for a legislative remedy.

Rochesterfirst.com reports: “The FY 2022 Enacted Budget provides $29.5 billion in State funding to school districts for the 2021-22 school year through School Aid, the highest level of State aid ever, supporting the operational costs of school districts that educate 2.5 million students statewide. This investment represents an increase of $3.0 billion (11.3 percent) compared to the 2020-21 school year, including a $1.4 billion (7.6 percent) Foundation Aid increase. Approximately 75 percent of this increase is targeted to high-need school districts.”

The NY Daily News’ Michael Elsen-Rooney explains the implications for the public schools in New York City, where over 1 million of the state’s children are enrolled in the nation’s largest school district: “A state budget agreement… includes a long-awaited windfall for New York City schools that could pad the city education budget by more than $1 billion annually by 2023.  Legislative budget documents… include an agreement to fully fund the state’s court-mandated ‘Foundation Aid’ formula for distributing money to school districts based on need. State education funding currently falls about $4 billion short of the amount the formula calls for—a shortfall that advocates and lawmakers have been fighting to reverse for more than a decade. The budget agreement will phase in the additional funding over three years, with state foundation aid spending likely to increase by roughly $1.4 billion each of the next three years.  When the additional funds are fully phased in, the city’s education budget could grow by more than $1 billion a year by 2023, advocates and analysts say.”

Last week’s legislative victory in New York has been a long time coming. For two decades, New York’s Alliance for Quality Education has led statewide organizing in the fight for fair school funding.  AQE’s executive director, Jasmine Gripper thanks all those who have worked with AQE over the years to stand up for New York’s children: “We are so humbled by every one of the parents, community leaders, students, educators, and elected officials who have stood alongside us through the years and never stopped pushing New York to finally do right by our students and fund the state’s own equitable school funding formula Foundation Aid. The Alliance for Quality Education has worked with our coalition partners Citizen Action of New York, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice to build a statewide force of parent power to lead and anchor this fight. The fight to hold the State to its obligation to fund public education has always been deeply steeped in racial justice; the majority of Foundation Aid remaining is due to school districts with 40 percent or more Black and Latinx students. The full funding of Foundation Aid that will be provided to schools over the next three years represents a major step toward racial and economic equity in education.”

The Schott Foundation for Public Education credits the work of the Alliance for Quality Education and its partners for the work that paid off in New York’s new budget: “But the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was always more than just a lawsuit: it was at the heart of a renaissance of educational justice organizing across the state… While attorneys were making arguments in courthouses, there were parents, students, and educators rallying on the steps outside. Academics and researchers pored through spreadsheets and made records requests to find out just how much schools were being underfunded. Parents and students organized in their schools and neighborhoods to educate and organize their peers. And seasoned advocates were making ever-stronger cases for funding equity to policymakers under the capitol dome in Albany… In the last several years, the hard-fought battles, consistent parent and youth organizing—and two 150 mile marches to Albany—began to pay off.”

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed the lawsuit for equitable school funding in 1993. The Schott Foundation examines the purpose of the lawsuit and the serious injustice that has persisted for New York’s children until last week: “The 2021-22 New York State budget meets a thirty-year-old demand and thirteen-year-old broken promise: equitably fund New York State’s public schools so that no matter what zip code a child resides in, there is a baseline of quality their public schools can afford to meet. The massive, downright Dickensian difference in funding between schools that sometimes are mere blocks from each other has been a hallmark of New York’s public education system for generations. In 2012, a Schott Foundation report on the particularly stark disparities in New York City described it as educational redlining: schools with predominantly white children were far better funded—and unsurprisingly, had higher academic outcomes—than schools with predominantly Black and Latinx children. We found similar disparity with income as well… ‘A black or Hispanic student, or a student of any race or ethnicity from a low-income household, is most likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools.'”

“By 2012, it shouldn’t have been that way. Five years earlier, in 2007, the 13-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit concluded in a victory for public schools: New York State agreed, under court mandate, to commit more than $5.5 billion in funding over four years to equitably fund all public schools. 70% of that funding was to go to the lowest-income school districts, whose property tax bases couldn’t compare with those of wealthier cities and neighborhoods.  However, this funding, known as Foundation Aid, never fully materialized.  Between the 2008 financial crisis and a wave of budget cuts by legislators, what should have been a decade of equity became one of austerity.”

Vouchers Across the States… and Proposed for New York

Last week when I learned that New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been going around that supposedly progressive state in the Northeast promoting a state Parental Choice in Education Act—a kind of school vouchers, I wondered if maybe we’ve really lost the battle against the privatization of public education, one of our society’s great achievements.  Here is this blog’s post last week on Governor Cuomo’s new proposal for tuition tax credits in New York state.

Vouchers and tuition tax credits both award public dollars as scholarships to students to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Vouchers give away tax dollars directly as scholarships.  Tuition tax credits give big tax breaks to those who contribute to funds for creating the scholarships.  The state education budget—on which public school districts depend—ends up much smaller in both instances.

Here is the Albany Times Union editorial board’s commentary on Governor Cuomo’s proposed tuition tax credits: “A governor who perennially complains about schools’ insatiable appetite for money has suddenly found millions of dollars to burn through for his Parental Choice in Education Act.  It’s a public-private partnership of the worst sort—the public pays the tab, private schools and wealthy donors reap the benefits.  Perhaps Mr. Cuomo sees this as another way to break what he calls the ‘public education monopoly’—as if public schools were not something in which we all have a stake.  But Mr. Cuomo seems to have conflated public education with his animosity for teachers’ unions.”

How does the proposal work? Private donors could “take a tax credit of 75 percent of their donations to nonprofit education foundations, up to $1 million.  Senate and Assembly versions of the bill would allow up to 90 percent.  That’s money shaved off a person’s or a corporation’s tax bill—and they could roll it from year to year if the credit exceeded their tax liability.”

Vouchers have always been popular on the far right. When I read about Cuomo’s new proposal, I wondered if they are trending up across the states.  But here is what I discovered.  Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have programs they identify as vouchers: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  Fifteen states have enacted tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.  Sixteen of these states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin—are one-party states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.  Pennsylvania, an industrial state in the Northeast, was a Republican one-party state until former Governor Tom Corbett was voted out of office last November in large part due policies that have punished the public schools in cities like Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown. Clearly a number of states have undertaken such school privatization plans, but expansion of vouchers has not taken off.

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education reports that earlier this week three dozen organizations banded together in New York to “decry the tax break as one that siphons taxpayer money from public schools and funnels it into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires.” The organizations that have joined in coalition represent the 99 Percent—constituents whose members depend on strong public schools for their children and the strength of their communities. It is heartening to see such a broad based coalition— including civic, religious, education, and labor organizations—gathering to defend public education: A. Philip Randolph Institute, AFSCME, Advocates for Children of New York, Alliance for Quality Education, Balcony, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Citizen Action of New York, Citizen Budget Commission, CSEA, DC 37-AFSCME, Interfaith Impact of New York State, La Fuente, League of Women Voters of New York State, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road New York, NAACP-New York State Chapter, New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State AFL-CIO, New York State Association of School Business Officials, New York State Federation of School Administrators, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York State School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers, New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, Public Employees Federation, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, Rochester-Finger Lakes Pride @ Work , Rural Schools Association of New York State, School Administrators Association of New York State, Strong Economy for All, The Black Institute, The Council of School Superintendents, United Federation of Teachers, and Working Families Party.

The Albany Times Union editorial board charges Cuomo with refusing fully to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity remedy the state agreed to back in 2006: “What’s perhaps most troubling here is how Mr. Cuomo has railed about the need to put public education on a crash diet, even as advocates accuse him of underfunding needy schools in cities and less affluent rural areas.  Now, suddenly, a state that supposedly could not afford to keep throwing money at public schools has $50 million to $150 million a year for private and parochial schools?”

David Little, Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, is quoted in the Alliance for Quality Education’s press release announcing the anti-tax credit coalition: “For New York State to consider diverting available funds away from public education while it has a law that unconstitutionally withholds funds from school districts is unconscionable.  If the state cannot afford its public educational system, it certainly can’t afford a second one.”

How Organized Citizens Helped de Blasio Sieze Equity-Driven Public Education as Core Issue

In the spring 2014 issue of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s VUE (Voices in Urban Education Reform), Oona Chaterjee, associate director for New York City organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, introduces a set of articles about how it came to be that mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, “elevated a comprehensive vision for improving the city’s more than 1,800 public schools”… including “many of the signature reforms fought for by advocates throughout the twelve preceding years of the Bloomberg administration: the creation of 100 community schools in his first rerm; supports for struggling schools, rather than school closings; reduced reliance on disciplinary measures that remove students from classrooms; and an accountability system that relies on measures other than standardized tests.”

It is easy to imagine that de Blasio, who became mayor in January 2014 after a stunning victory last November, might have created his public education agenda as a response to his years as a parent in Brooklyn or to his experiences while serving as public advocate, but in fact Annenberg’s spring VUE is a collection of articles about strategic and extended community organizing that pressured New York City’s mayoral candidates to react to a community-driven platform and to embrace or reject it.  In the spring 2014 VUE, it is very much worth reading pieces by two of New York City’s best community organizers—Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education and Ocynthia Williams of the Coalition for Educational Justice—and to read Oona Chateree’s interview with New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera.

But most fascinating is Billy Easton’s, Changing Course on School Reform: Strategic Organizing around the New York City Mayoral Election. Easton is the executive director of New York’s statewide Alliance for Quality Education, which, beginning in 2011, worked with the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, and the Urban Youth Collaborative, to develop a strategy to create momentum for the overwhelming rejection of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s educational philosophy.  The two year campaign was designed to culminate in the 2013 mayoral race.

The goal, according to Easton, was to establish a positive agenda to counter the corporate school reform that had become Bloomberg’s signature issue: “Bloomberg used the bully pulpit of his office, his virtually unchecked authority over schools through perhaps the nation’s most absolute form of mayoral control, and his own personal wealth to aggressively promote his education agenda… Bloomberg wanted a skilled manager to run the schools like a corporation, not a professional educator—hence three non-educators as chancellors… Central management staff included many non-educators with backgrounds as investment bankers, management consultants, and corporate lawyers.  Management authority was devolved to building principals with a sink-or-swim philosophy similar to that of corporate restructurings.  The entire system was aligned to drive up the test score bottom line… As one principal described it, ‘The profit margin in this business is test scores.  That’s all they measure you by now.'”

Easton traces the agenda organizers framed as a rejection of Bloomberg’s philosophy that school districts are run for the adults they employ, not for the students.  A new, and contrasting, student-centered counter-narrative explained that those running the schools under Bloomberg had utterly failed to focus on the concerns of the students—quality curriculum, arts and music, guidance counseling, supporting teachers, programs for English language learners—and had instead emphasized adult issues—“who runs schools, who works in schools, and what the rules are for employment.”

Two large  coalitions were established with a shared purpose and different tactics—one campaign that engaged the community around policy development and a second campaign that engaged the candidates and mobilized the grassroots.  The goal of the two-pronged effort “was to see the next mayor, no matter who won, implement policies that replaced the market-reform agenda with a student-centered opportunity agenda.  A secondary goal was that the next mayor should help drive a new direction in school reform nationally by using New York city’s bully pulpit to articulate a successful vision for reform….”

Organizers posted twenty policy briefs authored by experts, took them on the road for discussion, and invited hundreds of parents and community members to “vote for the recommendations that most reflected their visions for the schools.”  At events across the city, parents and community participants then pressed the mayoral candidates to “commit to pieces of it, so that the candidates themselves would be the most effective public advocates of the agenda—thus capturing considerable media attention and framing the political debate… We identified a few key wedge issues where the candidates had to take a yes or no stand, making it difficult for them to equivocate.  In January 2013, we called for a moratorium on school closings and co-locations… The wedge issue strategy was working by creating divide lines among the candidates and between the candidates and the Bloomberg administration.  Our issues, and thus the direction of school reform were emerging as central issues in the mayoral campaign.”

The coalitions that framed an agenda to expand opportunity in the public schools have pledged to continue using their platform to press the new mayor to continue focusing on public education:  “The real challenge is to continue supporting and pressuring Mayor de Basio to provide leadership on education reform that is as assertive as Bloomberg’s but with a wholly different agenda and one that is much more successful for New York city students.”

Orwellian Language Again: Info-Graphic Answers Your Questions about Democrats for Education Reform

It has perhaps slipped your mind, but beginning Sunday afternoon and ending this morning, a group of New York hedge fund managers and charter school supporters has been meeting at Camp Philos in a retreat center at Lake Placid, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.  The honorary chair of this event was Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.  Governor Cuomo is not only the man who went before an Albany rally this spring to proclaim, “We will save charter schools,” but also the man who, we discovered later, worked behind the scenes with supporters of a well connected New York City charter school network to stage the rally.

Billy Easton is the executive director of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, a large statewide coalition of organizations that has been working hard for over a decade to help ensure that New York’s public schools are adequately funded.  AQE, as the organization refers to itself, has worked assiduously to ensure that New York lives up to the commitments made in response to a statewide school funding lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, only to be disappointed repeatedly by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been more interested in cutting taxes and supporting charter schools.

According to Easton in a recent commentary published at Gotham Gazette, “While backers of the corporate school agenda are proclaiming Cuomo as a conquering hero, public school parents around the state are protesting against him.  His policies have systematically forced classroom cuts every year he has been in office and have promoted a damaging culture of teaching to the test…  The organizers of Camp Philos are literally bathing in money from hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy donors that are ready to continue arming the Governor in his effort to push forward more corporate-style reforms…. Meanwhile, our public schools are barely scraping by.  Year after year, school districts across the state have been through an endless cycle of classroom cuts that have resulted in shrinking opportunities for students.”

In honor of Camp Philos, late last week Easton’s organization, AQE, and its allies put together an info-graphic to help us all connect the dots among Camp Philos’s sponsors, their allies, and the people who spent $1,000 to attend the three day event ($2,500 for VIP attendees).  The info-graphic is helpful because you may have wondered about the involvement of hedge fund managers in the promotion of charter schools.  You may have wondered about Democrats for Education Reform, that has chosen a name that sounds progressive but instead promotes school privatization and works with the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos and her pro-voucher American Federation for Children.  And you may not have been able to figure out that Education Reform Now (the group that just last month spent nearly $5 million for TV ads supporting Success Academy Charter Network’s right to co-locate three charter schools into New York City public school buildings) is the 501(c)(3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform.  And maybe you thought Democrats for Education Reform couldn’t touch public schools in your state because it is only a New York organization, but you didn’t realize that DFER, as it is called for short, has also been spending huge amounts to impact state and local elections across the country.

This info-graphic, Democrats (In Name Only) for Education Reform,  along with the links it provides to background material, will establish DFER clearly in your memory and straighten out any misconceptions you may have about what this organization really stands for.