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.”

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education Urges Cuomo to Invest in Public School Equity

These days, by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization, politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the very real problems that affect achievement at school—problems of child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in state budgets.   This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia.

But nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking school teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools.  In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is.  It’s a public monopoly.”  The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.

In his State of the State address today Governor Cuomo, who just won a second term as Governor, is scheduled formally to announce his priorities for 2015, including his plans for public education.  Here is how the NY Times describes the lead-up to Cuomo’s scheduled speech: “In speeches, interviews and a letter over the last few weeks, the governor has said that he thinks New York State’s teacher grading system, only in its third year, is too easy to pass, making it too difficult to fire underperforming teachers. He has suggested that a current limit on the number of charter schools needs to be raised or eliminated. He has also expressed support for a tax credit for people and companies donating money to public schools and private school scholarships.  All of those positions are opposed by the teachers’ unions, and they, along with advocates of charter schools and other groups that back those changes, have already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars this month to television advertisements in New York City and Albany, leading up to Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State speech….”

Last week the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), in collaboration with the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action, released Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, a report that accuses Governor Cuomo, through the budgets he has signed, of widening the gap in investment between wealthy and poor school districts, despite a promise at the beginning of his first term to make school funding more equitable.

AQE reports that as the centerpiece of the remedy in a 2006 ruling in the school funding equity lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. New York (CFE), the state agreed to add $5.5 billion in new Foundation Aid over the next four years.  The state honored its commitment in  2007 and 2008 but between 2009 and 2013,  the state froze funding and cut school aid.  Inadequate state budgets resulted in the loss of almost 40,000 educators and other staff and in widespread reductions in curricular offerings in New York’s poorest school districts.

While as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time.  There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”  Despite these words, according to the new AQE report, during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history.  Tragically the money that was promised in 2007 to keep closing this gap was only delivered for two years and then Governor Cuomo led the legislature to stop funding CFE and the gap widened again.”

Examining one measure of unequal outcomes for students in poor and wealthy districts, AQE tracks high school graduation and notes that from 2005 to 2014, the disparity in graduation rates between the poorest and the wealthiest school districts has hovered consistently between 25 percent and 27 percent. AQE declares, “While there are many factors that contribute to unequal outcomes—particularly the contrasting impacts of poverty and wealth on every aspect of children’s lives—educational resources are the essential ingredients schools provide to close the gap in educational outcomes.  These resources include pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum including art, music and physical education as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, mentoring and supports to strengthen teachers, programs for English language learners, and social, emotional and health supports to meet the diverse needs of students.”

AQE recommends that Governor Cuomo and the state of New York improve public schools through five measures: fulfill the commitment to universal full-day pre-kindergarten; make a serious commitment to community schools; focus on high quality curriculum for all students, not testing; meet the needs of English language learners; and close the inequality gap by fully funding schools. The report concludes: “New York’s wealthiest districts are able to offer tremendous curricula with course offerings that include Tournament Debate, Advanced Placement Art History, Advanced Placement Chinese, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Wall Street: How to Become a Millionaire, and Personal Law (complete with mock trials).  These same districts often offer dozens of options in arts, music and performing arts.  Meanwhile students in poor communities are fortunate to have a few options for AP courses, are lucky to have more than one foreign language offered, and have seen cutbacks in their limited offerings of art, music, and high school electives.”

The battle over educational equity in New York is a microcosm of what is happening across many states and at the federal level as Congress debates a strategy to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.  In New York the battle lines are clearly drawn. Should our society strengthen opportunity by investing in improving the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of our children?  Or should we pretend, as Governor Cuomo seems to do, that we can base education policy on making tougher the evaluation of teachers and creating more charter schools so that some children can escape?

Vergara Copycat Lawsuit in NY Attacks Teachers Instead of Injustice, Say Experts

In June of this year, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers in the case of Vergara v. California.  According to Treu’s decision, tenure protects bad teachers, bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most disadvantaged students, and the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Many speculate the case will be overturned on appeal, and Judge Treu has stayed his decision pending the appeal.

Opponents of tenure have promised to launch copycat lawsuits against school teachers’ job protections in other states. Earlier this month, such a lawsuit was filed in New York on Staten Island by a group called the New York City Parents Union. While Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, told the NY Times that her lawsuit is different because it is “not being bankrolled by outside interests,” the research blogger, Mother Crusader, has connected the group’s board members to three organizations that actively oppose teachers unions and seek to privatize public education: Democrats for Education Reform, NYCAN, and StudentsFirstNY.

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post reports that Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has transformed herself into an advocate against job protections for teachers, has created her own organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, for the purpose of her crusade.  She has hired the public relations firm of former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, according to Stephanie Simon of Politico, to “lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended.”  Brown has said her organization will be involved in New York.  (This blog covered the Campbell Brown, Robert Gibbs, Ben LaBolt endeavor here.)

On Tuesday of this week, two heavyweight public school justice advocates went on the offensive against the New York attempt to claim that due process protections for teachers deny children’s civil right to an education.  Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center—both involved for years in lawsuits in New York and New Jersey to protect the rights of children to adequately funded education—published an opinion piece in the Albany Times Union.

The Staten Island lawsuit, they declare, completely misses the point: “The lawsuit gets one thing right,” they charge, “Children in high poverty, urban and rural school districts across the state are indeed being deprived of their constitutional right to a sound basic education.  What it gets completely wrong is why:  the state’s continuing failure to fairly fund high need schools so they can recruit, support and retain effective teachers and deliver rich instruction in math, science, world languages, the arts and other core subjects under optimal working conditions.”

In the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, New York’s high court defined the “sound basic education” to which all children in New York have a right. In response the New York General Assembly enacted the 2007 Foundation Aid Formula, which increased school funding across the state by more than $5 billion to be phased in over four years. However, “After two years, the state walked away from its commitment to our most disadvantaged children and schools.  The funding shortfall now totals a staggering $5.7 billion, with the greatest impact on schools with the highest need.”

According to Sciarra and Easton the shortage has “cut teachers by the thousands…. In five years, Yonkers cut 500 staff members, losing half of the reading teachers and all math coaches.  Schenectady has shed 40-50 positions annually, cutting music teachers by half, and letting go librarians, instructional coaches and writing instructors… Predictably, these staff reductions have sparked drastic increases in class size.  Teachers now routinely face classes of 30 students or more.”

Easton and Sciarra conclude: “The good news is parents and students across New York know better.  They have stepped up by the thousands to let Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators know that they will no longer tolerate an underfunded, under-resourced, third-rate education.  And they will not be distracted by frivolous, irrelevant lawsuits.”