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Another Voice: State mandates drive the high costs of education in New York

By Tom Flynn

There has been much talk about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “war on education,” but truth is, Albany has been waging war on public education for at least five years. The 2009-10 school year was the first year Albany froze Foundation Aid at the previous year’s level.

Foundation Aid is the first layer of state aid provided to school districts. Designed to fund basic financial needs, it was intended to increase annually to keep stride with districts’ cost increases in areas beyond their control, such as retirement expenses and contractual obligations. The freeze removed that financial safety net. But Albany wasn’t done; it then established the Deficit Reduction Act, later known as the now-notorious Gap Elimination Adjustment.

This legislation allowed the state to rake back funds from the schools to close its own deficit during the Great Recession. Recognizing how hard the fiscal crisis was hitting schools, the federal government provided districts temporary aid for some fiscal stability. Those important, but brief, federal dollars ended with the 2011-12 school year.

Frozen financial aid and the GEA continued, however, as did Albany’s assault on school funding. Albany imposed the so-called “2 percent” tax cap in 2011, limiting all public budgets to a formulated percentage, unless overridden by a 60 percent majority vote. With this cap came the promise of mandate relief, to ease the fiscal burden of Albany’s own imposed cost-drivers. Little was done in that regard. But frozen Foundation Aid and the GEA and the “tax cap” march on, along with the state’s unfunded and underfunded mandates. Meanwhile, New York’s local property taxpayers ante up two-thirds of the cost of public education, while the state provides only one-third, unlike most other states in the nation.

Masterfully, Albany continued to make it look like it was doing local taxpayers a great favor with its tax freeze and tax rebate program. What appears to be largess from the state is actually a case of Albany overtaxing local taxpayers, whose money it then keeps for six months, then sends some back, at yet more cost for paper, postage and program administration.

It is telling that Albany’s “war on public education” is a war to choke off funding, but it is not a war on the spending that Albany itself imposes. The real issue is that through its own mandates, frozen aid and GEA take-backs, Albany underfunds school aid and abets the burden on local taxpayers. That’s what needs to be fixed. Albany is operating on a budget surplus, as well as a windfall of billions of dollars from sanctions against financial institutions.

And if Albany asks why schools spend so much money, the answer to Albany is, “because you make us.” Mandate relief is a key component of a fair funding scenario for public education in New York.

Tom Flynn is vice president of the Hamburg Board of Education.