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Editorial: Governor’s proposal for school funding balances needs, fiscal concerns

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is asking school districts to do more with … more. Education advocates, though, aren’t happy with what amounts to the governor’s opening offer.

Cuomo, releasing his budget proposals for the fiscal year on Tuesday, proposed an increase of nearly $1 billion in aid to New York’s public schools. The 3.6 percent increase would bring overall aid to $27.7 billion.

The state Board of Regents had called for a $2.1 billion increase in aid. The New York State Educational Conference Board, a coalition of six groups, asked for a $2.2 billion hike.

The fact is that education groups will lobby the Legislature between now and April 1, when the budget is due, and the amount for school aid will increase. This is New York.

But school districts have to accept limits, as we all do. School aid constitutes the largest piece of the $175.8 billion state budget plan.

New York’s per-pupil spending is the highest in the country. Too often the return on investment — measured in academic progress — is not what it should be. At some point the districts will have to live with smaller increases than want. The state’s largesse is not unlimited and revenues from personal income taxes are declining in the state, with fluctuating financial markets reflecting the possibility of a national economic slowdown.

The governor proposes an increase of $338 million in foundation aid, a formula that sends extra dollars to high-needs districts. That’s the same increase given last year.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Chancellor Betty Rosa called that recommendation alarming.

“The proposed $338 million Foundation Aid increase falls far short of what schools need to achieve equity, or even keep pace with inflation and demographic changes,” Elia and Rosa said in a statement.

Rather than a larger increase, which the governor has referred to as a “ghost of the past,” Cuomo focused on changing the aid formula to correct inequities in funding between rich and poor schools.

“We were funding the poorer districts and then the districts turned around and decided how to distribute the funds and they did not distribute the funds to the poorer schools,” Cuomo said.

The school districts don’t like anything that ties their hands in how they distribute aid, but the governor identified a serious flaw in how aid is distributed. If the districts have better ideas for addressing those inequities, they should propose them.

Cuomo highlighted a law that requires districts to disclose how much money is being given to each school. In 2018, 76 school districts were required to submit school-by-school funding to the state Division of Budget. Among them were Buffalo, Lackawanna, Lake Shore, Lockport, Newfane, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda. This year, 309 school districts will have give detailed funding reports, then all 674 districts in 2020.

A number of factors drive the high cost of education in New York, including teacher compensation and retirement benefits, transportation and special education. In a time of economic uncertainty, school districts must be required to find creative ways to live within the more-than-generous means that New York taxpayers already provide.

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