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Record increase in funding for schools should have been tied to progress

Residents of the state’s school districts might have been pleased at the level of education funding in the just-completed state budget, since it will help to spare them increases in their property tax rates, but the record total of $24.8 billion carries another, more ominous consequence: The state that spends more per student than any other just got even more expensive, and without asking districts to do a thing to improve how education is delivered in New York.

It would be one thing if New York students got the country’s best education in exchange for their parents paying the country’s highest costs, but even that isn’t so. Other states deliver better educations at lesser costs. It’s an intolerable divergence of expense and result – one that just grew even wider.

Parents and taxpayers have a right to expect more than that from their elected officeholders.

No one should object to increased funding that acknowledges rising costs, but it desperately needed to come with strings attached. School districts, led by state directives, need to re-engineer how education is delivered in this high-cost state. Then, the increase in funding might have amounted to a fair trade, giving taxpayers and students something they need more than better-paid teachers.

The increase helped to make up for losses districts incurred as Albany contended with the punishing effects of the Great Recession. It was a painful time for schools, though inevitably so. Education and health are where the state spends the lion’s share of its budget. By virtue of their costs, they were also the places where the state had to go to control expenses at a time when its revenue stream was constricted.

Districts complained mightily about those losses, but virtually every American in every industry sustained significant changes in income over the same period. Those Americans had to make changes, too. To be sure, school districts adapted to the decreases in expected levels of funding, but few if any of them took advantage of the crisis to evaluate what they could do to deliver better education while conserving dollars.

There were some encouraging aspects of the education funding package negotiated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and leaders of the State Legislature. One is the $175 million earmarked for expanding community schools in low-performing schools located in high-needs districts.

With its share of $12.5 million, Buffalo plans to launch 18 community schools this September in four community zones. It also wants to replicate programs in place at South Park High School. They include the availability of a licensed clinical social worker one day a week, along with daily tutoring and mentoring provided by the Buffalo Urban League. Other resources are also available. That infusion of money will help ensure that “resources get to communities in Buffalo where the families and children need the most services,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Also important was continued support of the state’s charter schools, which won an estimated increase of $430 per pupil. Not all charters are worthy of increased state support but they, at least, can have their charters revoked for failure to perform. It is important to support their work in providing an alternative for New York students, though they should also have been challenged to improve their efficiency as a condition of increased funding.

All in all, this is an uneasy year in education, as the Board of Regents, led by a new chancellor of dubious loyalties, backs away from its insistence on excellence. Despite that, this much is certain: School districts will be back at the table next year, clamoring for another record increase. And unless elected state leaders insist otherwise, taxpayers and students will benefit little in return.