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Editorial: New numbers should drive educational change

The new mandate requiring some districts across the state to report school-by-school budgets may lead to spirited discussions. Good. In the end, that needs to be the point.

New York needs to re-engineer the way it pays for education — both in terms of where money is spent and the so-so results that come from some of the nation’s highest per-pupil spending. That task begins with knowing how the schools are spending their tax dollars. Already advocates are raising fresh questions about “equitable” funding and what that means in light of this new data.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spearheaded the reporting mandate. Good for him. It is a lot of work, but if taxpayers, politicians and educators make smart use of the information, well worth the effort.

The New York State School Boards Association questioned why districts need another “layer” of financial accountability, given that the state mandates that districts submit their budgets for each school. Moreover, by December 2019, the federal government also will require districts to report how much of that money is eventually spent at each school.

But it is a lot better to have the conversation with parents and the community about how you spend the money before you spend the money, as observed by Ian Rosenblum, director of the Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income students and students of color.

The two reporting methods complement each other.

For this school year, for example, the public now knows that Buffalo is planning to spend an average of only 4 percent more in the elementary and middle schools that serve the greatest share of low-income students.

The district practices school-based budgeting “driven by student numbers and needs,” and, as a consequence, didn’t perceive disparities or schools that were getting “shortchanged.”

But getting the same amount of money, or only a little more, than schools with fewer challenges is not sufficient, according to Rosenblum.

“We know that equal is not the same as equitable,” he said. “The schools that served the greatest share of under-served students need significantly more resources than schools that serve the smallest share.”

It is a conversation that, for the first time ever, can be conducted in detail today. That’s among the advantages of these reports.

The new state legislation required 76 school districts to submit school-by-school funding to the state Division of Budget this year. The districts are those with at least four schools that receive half their revenue from state aid: In this region, they are Buffalo, Lackawanna, Lake Shore, Lockport, Newfane, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda.

Next year, 309 school districts will be required to report the data and in two years all 674 districts will be required to do so, with specific budget items each year. The data must be comparable from school to school or across districts.

The new reporting opens the book in advance on school salaries, curriculum, materials, supplies and operation and maintenance, as examples, while excluding non-instructional costs such as food service, transportation and adult education. That’s useful.

As Rosenblum said, when any school district that is reporting has its budget conversation about how it plans to spend its increase next year, parents are armed with the data about where there are gaps.

From the perspective of Education Trust-New York, both sides of the data are very valuable — planning and budgeting — and how the districts do spend the money. It is not duplicative. It is complementary.

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