As it drew to a close, New York State’s budget process was dominated by the debate over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system, the Annual Professional Performance Review (“APPR”). But the APPR controversy distracted attention from the actual key to improving New York’s public schools.
The state’s highest court, in the landmark case Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (“CFE”), determined that in order to provide every child in New York with a meaningful high school education, the State must provide adequate resources so that schools have basic educational tools, including small class sizes; a sufficient number of qualified teachers; adequate facilities, books, textbooks, libraries and other instrumentalities of learning; extra help, time and support for children who need it; and a safe and orderly environment.
In response to the CFE decision, New York State in 2007 enacted the Foundation Aid Formula and promised to infuse $5.5 billion, phased-in over four years, in additional state aid into the school finance system. However, two years later, the State froze Foundation Aid, and then began to cut school funding through the Gap Elimination Adjustment (“GEA”). By the 2015-16 budget session, New York owed schools $4.7 billion in Foundation Aid and $1.1 billion in GEA restoration.
New York’s failure to fund the Foundation Aid Formula has had dire consequences for schools, especially those in impoverished communities. Districts have been forced to cut teachers, social workers, psychologists, academic intervention services, and other key educational resources. As a result, children in these districts have not had the opportunities they need to succeed in school, and their performance, not surprisingly, has suffered.
State aid cuts formed the basis of a lawsuit, Maisto v. State, brought by students and parents in eight “Small City” districts. During court testimony, which ended in mid-March in the NY Supreme Court in Albany, the State admitted that the eight districts had been deprived of over $1 billion in aid as a result of the failure to fund the Foundation Aid formula and imposition of the GEA cuts. Testimony from other witnesses detailed the loss of essential teachers, staff and support services triggered by the funding shortfall. The State conceded that student outcomes in these districts are “tragic,” in the words of one State witness.
The Maisto case made clear that the crucial question in this year’s budget was this: Did the State redress the failure to fulfill its constitutional obligation to fund New York schools adequately, so that all children can have the opportunity for a meaningful high school education?
The answer, once again, is no. The FY16 budget provides a $428 million increase in Foundation Aid, against the backdrop of the cumulative $4.7 billion shortfall in Foundation Aid. The budget provides $603 million in GEA restoration, but that is still half a billion dollars short of the $1.1 billion owed the districts. Also absent was a commitment to put the Foundation Aid formula back on track to full funding.
The overall aid increase of $1.3 billion exceeds last year’s figure, but it falls far short of what New York students are entitled to. It also fails to mitigate the severe resource cuts over the past six years.
An analysis of the FY16 budget by noted school finance expert, Bruce Baker, a witness for the Maisto students, shows that these eight Small City districts still face significant funding gaps. For example, Utica, which has drastically cut its budget is still facing a nearly $4,000 per pupil funding shortfall. The bottom line for Utica schools is a continuing lack of essential resources to serve a student population in which 83% are poor, 16% are students with disabilities, and 16% are English language learners speaking over 42 different languages. As Dr. Baker notes, in the districts that are home to what Governor Cuomo considers to be “failing” schools, the funding gaps, after the 2015-16 budget increase, range from over $1600 per pupil to almost $8,000 per pupil.
To make matters worse, the Governor pushed through his proposal to make the increases in aid contingent upon approval of new APPR plans by November 2015. Districts which already have approved APPR plans must now spend more time developing a new plan and obtaining State approval by November in order to receive constitutionally required, basic education funding.
“The evidence in the Maisto trial made clear that high need schools are severely underfunded,” said Wendy Lecker, Senior Attorney at ELC, which served as co-counsel in the trial. “Every year that students are forced to do without adequate school resources is a year of lost learning they cannot recapture. Unfortunately, the FY16 budget has failed those students once again. And once again, the courts will have to act to ensure a sound basic education to students in the Maisto districts and across the state.”
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