Monday, March 19, 2007

State Aid To Education Is Formula For Failure

Disparity In State Aid Hurts All Our Children

The battle lines are being drawn again up in Albany. Upstate versus downstate. The City versus Long Island. Proposals that merely skirt the issues rather than address them tossed down State Street like so many taxpayer dollars in the wind.

The obvious inequities of the State Aid formulae -- both existing and proposed -- aside, here's the real question:

If NYC is getting 38% of the State Aid pie, and Long Island is getting 12%, where's the other 50% of State Aid to education going?

You got it. Upstate school districts, be they rich, poor, or midling, are enjoying that pie (some are even getting fat on it, with upwards of 80% of their budgets covered by your tax dollars), while Long Island is left with the crumbs -- and Long Island's homeowners are left to pick up the hefty remainder of the tab through outrageously high school property taxes.

Still wondering why your property taxes are so damned out of whack? Just look at the numbers.

Old formula. New formula. No formula at all. No matter how Albany slices that pie, the inequity in the distribution of State Aid to education is hurting those who are most vulnerable, most in need of a hand up, and most important to the future of New York -- our children.

Maybe its time to ask your State Legislator if the aid to education package your school district is slated to receive is right for you?
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Albany Divided on Calculation of School Aid
By Michael Cooper

ALBANY, March 17 — For years, school aid in New York has been calculated with dozens of formulas that make the Human Genome Project look downright intelligible by comparison. But year after year, no matter which districts gained or lost students, or what data was plugged into the formulas, New York City always received close to 39 percent of new spending and Long Island received between 12 and 13 percent.

This year Gov. Eliot Spitzer, facing a court order that said New York City’s schools were being shortchanged, is trying to change the way the pie is divided. He is calling for a $7 billion increase in education spending over the next four years, and he wants to replace most of the existing formulas with a simpler, more universal one. He wants more money to go to the state’s high-needs districts, with 46 percent of the new aid next year sent to New York City and only 8 percent to Long Island.

This has the Republican-led State Senate up in arms, since many members come from suburban districts that have benefited from the old system. The idea of “breaking shares” has long been anathema to them.

So the Senate made a counterproposal that called for spending even more money than the governor called for, and adjusting his new uber-formula. The result? Their plan would send about 38.9 percent of the increased aid to New York City and about 13 percent to Long Island, maintaining the historic share system, according to an analysis by the governor’s budget division.

“What they have done in their budget is lock in place the shares system,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that has long advocated sending more aid to poor districts. “Their distribution formula is almost obscene in the way that it favors wealthy districts at the expense of high-needs students. In essence, they are locking in a lifetime of inequity.”

Republican senators counter that unless they are able to change the governor’s formula, more than 300 school districts will receive smaller increases of state aid than they were expecting, forcing many to raise their already high local property taxes or to adopt contingency budgets that cut important school programs.

The battle over Governor Spitzer’s school spending plan may not be as high-profile as the battle over his health care proposal, which has sparked a multimillion-dollar advertising war, but inside the Capitol it is being waged with even more passion.

The division of school aid has long been one of the touchiest subjects in the capital. In theory, officials try to take into account a number of variables: the number of pupils and their special needs; the wealth of the school district and how much it can be expected to raise for schools in local taxes; regional differences in costs; and a host of other factors.

New York City had 36.56 percent of the state’s students in 2005, and Long Island had 16.87 percent, according to an analysis by the New York State Council of School Superintendents. And the city has a higher proportion of students below the poverty level and students who are learning English or have other special needs.

In practice, politics has always played a role as well. When the budget comes out each year, the first things most lawmakers ask for are the “runs,” or computerized printouts showing how much the schools in their districts can expect to get.

But there are wide differences in how much each of the state’s nearly 700 school districts receives in state aid, how much comes from local taxes, and what is spent on each pupil. So while New York City spent $15,444 per pupil last year, according to an analysis by the school superintendents council, Great Neck spent $25,416 per pupil, a difference of almost $10,000 per student. Of course, districts like Great Neck rely heavily on local property taxes.

There are also wide disparities in how well students do. Only half of the students in big-city districts complete high school in four years, while 88 percent of those in wealthier districts do, according to the State Education Department. Only a quarter of the middle school students in big-city districts are proficient in math, compared with 82 percent in wealthier districts.
The historic ratio of school spending comes from a political decision by state officials to dole out money based on set “shares,” or percentages of new aid. When the state’s highest court ruled in 2003 that New York City’s schoolchildren were being deprived of their right to a sound, basic education, it found evidence that state officials agreed on the shares first, and then worked backward so the formulas produced the desired outcomes. Governor Spitzer’s education proposal calls for directing more of the new aid to New York City and other high-needs districts — a sea change for Albany.

But in recognition of the fact that homeowners in much of the state are straining under high property taxes that go in part to help pay for their schools, the governor links his education proposal to his plan to send more property tax relief to middle class homeowners.

The practical impact of the governor’s plan, as it relates to changing the share system, is modest for next year, since the new shares apply only to the $1.4 billion in new spending, not to the state’s entire $19.2 billion education budget. The state says that the city’s share of new aid is going up. The Bloomberg administration, though, says that because the state double-counts some education aid to the city, and is increasing education spending across the state, the city’s share of state education spending will actually fall. Mark Page, the mayor’s budget director, testified before the City Council recently that “the city will actually receive less than its usual 38 percent” next year under the governor’s plan.

Still, the city and the state were able to avert one of the biggest education budget battles of the year even before the governor presented his budget plan.

For years, as a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state, arguing for more school aid for New York City’s children, the city argued that the state should be the one to provide any additional aid that was needed.

But this year Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg agreed to pay more than 40 percent of the additional money over the next four years, an amount the city says it would have spent in any event, so that by the year 2010 the state will be sending the city an additional $3.17 billion a year while the city agrees to pay an additional $2.22 billion. (Of course, because of term limits, Mayor Bloomberg will no longer be in office at that time.)

The governor’s budget rejects the calls of some fiscal monitors who think the state should redirect money that currently goes to wealthy districts to poorer areas.

Instead, his budget includes a provision that every school district should receive at least a 3 percent increase in the aid given under his main formula, which he calls “foundation aid.”

But Senate Republicans warn that districts held to 3 percent foundation aid increases — a provision called “save harmless” — will suffer, because education expenses are rising faster than that. So they have proposed spending $358 million more than the governor recommends, and driving more money to low-needs districts. They acknowledge that this would essentially maintain the existing share system.

“Nobody gets less, and many, including the City of New York, receive more,” said Senator Stephen M. Saland, a Hudson Valley Republican who is chairman of the Senate education committee. “We believe that this provides equity, equity for all children — especially the 900,000 that are currently attending these ‘save harmless’ flat-lined districts.”

Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said, “By controlling spending, the governor was able to propose an historic investment in education, but if that influx of funding isn’t distributed via a reformed school aid formula and tied to stringent accountability measures, the investment isn’t likely to result in higher-quality education.”

The Senate’s proposal put education advocates in an awkward position: Should they accept a proposal that calls for more spending but uses the old shares system, or hold out for a new shares system? Several said that the Senate proposal was like getting a bonus instead of a raise — a nice influx of money in the short term, but one that is not built into salaries as a starting point for future years.

Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the court case, said: “This is a historic moment where we can finally realize the promise of C.F.E. The good news is that there will be a major investment in education — both the governor and the Senate have talked about major investments — but the critical element still is to make sure that the formula goes to the neediest districts.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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