By David Friedfel
A key issue for this year’s New York State legislative session is: How much more state funding of education is needed? The answer is crucial, because New York is required by the State Constitution to provide students with a sound basic education, and that obligation is not being met in all school districts.
The answer has two parts – money and a formula for distributing it. And not as much is needed as some suggest, if the state is willing to transform how the funds are distributed. A new formula proposed by the Citizens Budget Commission would do that and would aid Buffalo significantly.
While there is a consensus that state funding must be increased, the range of estimates is substantial. Advocates who have filed suit to increase the funding say that an additional $4.3 billion is needed next year. The Board of Regents proposed $2.1 billion, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo budgeted nearly $1 billion in additional funding, with $430 million of it provided through Foundation Aid. That’s on top of the more than $24 billion in aid to local school districts that the state already provides.
One of the reasons New York school district education spending is so high – and yet a sound basic education is not provided in every district – is that the state has long had a practice of maintaining its school aid funding for every district, no matter how much each district already spends.
In the governor’s budget, proposed in January, every school district gets an increase in Foundation Aid of at least 1 percent, while only a handful of high-poverty districts see growth over 3 percent.
Foundation Aid is the largest source of state aid and supplements local funding for school districts to help provide enough resources for a sound education, but its distribution formula is flawed.
It includes features that provide too many resources to some districts while shortchanging others.
A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission, for which I was the primary author, found that only $569 million in additional funding is needed if the state fixes the Foundation Aid formula and redirects $2.7 billion to needy districts. Under the commission’s proposed formula, Buffalo would receive $146 million more for a total of $641 million, while Orchard Park would lose its $15 million allocation of Foundation Aid.
The challenge is to return Foundation Aid to its intended purpose: directing aid to the neediest districts. But the governor’s proposed budget does not do that. It directly links 2017-2018 distributions to the prior year, and provides that all future Foundation Aid distributions would equal the 2017-2018 distribution. The advantage to wealthy districts would be preserved.
The state has a constitutional obligation that must be met, but the formula that has failed in the past will not miraculously succeed in the future.
David Friedfel is director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission in New York City.