How COVID-19 is changing education in New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio at PS1 on April 7, 2020.
Mayor Bill de Blasio at PS1 on April 7, 2020.
lev radin/Shutterstock
Mayor Bill de Blasio at PS1 on April 7, 2020.

How COVID-19 is changing education in New York

School funding is completely up in the air. But key decisions will be made in the next few weeks.
May 7, 2020

The simple truth is that no one really knows how the coronavirus pandemic will upend public education in New York – or even what the education funding reality looks like one month after the state budget was approved.

Tax revenues will likely continue to plummet. State budget cuts of historic proportions could happen. The federal government may or may not provide billions in additional stimulus money. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a new effort to “reimagine education.” Increasing taxes remains a possibility. Despite so much being up in the air, the fiscal picture will become more clear in the coming weeks, even if all this uncertainty takes longer to resolve.

On May 15, the Cuomo administration is expected to detail those deep cuts the governor outlined at the beginning of the month. State lawmakers would then have 10 days to make any legislative changes. Voters will cast exclusively absentee ballots on June 9 to approve local school budgets. If any budgets get rejected, there would be limited time to reconsider those plans since the new fiscal year for schools begins on July 1. “Our dilemma is that there is more uncertainty than ever before about how any of this will turn out,” said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “The new fiscal year is July 1. We’re cutting it kind of close.”

Big changes are in store for New York public schools whether or not the federal government provides billions in new funding this year. The governor is looking to change the education system as local leaders struggle to balance public health concerns with fiscal realities.

Schools have to maintain social distancing in cramped facilities. They have to figure out how teachers, staff and students are going to get personal protective equipment. Do students need an extra mask after lunch? Distance learning requires new equipment and brings its own logistical challenges. “Everything we do about social distancing really amounts to making my schools less efficient,” said one suburban school superintendent, on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “We’re going to have less money to work with and more costs to deal with.”

Localities statewide face $8.2 billion in cuts moving forward compared to the recently approved state budget, according to a budget update released last month by the state Budget Division. The economic damage of the pandemic has caused a 12.4% reduction in tax receipts over the past couple months, and another report said the state could face $243 billion in damages over the next few years. What this will mean for public schools in the coming months will be detailed by the Cuomo administration sometime around May 15 after state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli releases his own update on the state’s fiscal position.

The state Legislature will have 10 days to counter any cuts proposed by the governor. While some lawmakers want to raise taxes on the ultrawealthy, it remains to be seen how much they would try to overcome resistance from the governor. His popularity has skyrocketed during the pandemic and some lawmakers may think twice before pushing for tax increases of any type during a reelection year.

Some downstate incumbents might lean left to fend off progressive challenges in the June 23 Democratic primary, especially in the Assembly where Speaker Carl Heastie has previously backed tax increases. The political incentives, however, run the other way in the state Senate where suburban swing districts on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley could determine whether or not Democrats win a supermajority in November.

School districts have little time to prepare their budgets that are slated to go before voters on June 9. It remains to be seen whether superintendents will ask voters, many of whom have economic difficulties of their own, to approve property taxes above the statewide cap. “We’re all trying to balance the needs of our communities against the realities of the economy,” the suburban superintendent said.

Legislative leaders said they are holding out hope that federal aid will limit the need for confrontation with the governor. “Our first order of business is fighting for this federal aid with the governor,” said state Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Shelley Mayer. “Without the money, these conversations are almost too dreadful to happen.” The governor, state legislative leaders and the entire New York congressional delegation – Republicans and Democrats – are part of a national effort to secure hundreds of billions in new funding for states and local governments. But despite the bipartisan support of the push, key GOP leaders stand in the way.

President Donald Trump and top Republicans have floated several conditions that are anathema to Democrats, from changing “sanctuary city” policies to shielding private businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made any deal contingent on the inclusion of aid for states, but one of her top deputies, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said May 6 that the chamber will likely not return to Washington, D.C., until a deal is struck.

Even if the federal government comes through with billions of dollars in additional state aid, public schools might only get a piece of it. While the state budget held funding levels officially flat for schools, New York City schools lost $716.9 million in state funding as soon as the city received that same amount of money from the federal government. New York City alone faces an additional $500 million funding cut moving forward. “The big takeaway is that high-poverty districts are getting disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis,” Drew Atchison of the American Institutes for Research, told Chalkbeat New York.

State lawmakers and activists have argued for years that the governor is not abiding by a legal requirement to fund a “sound basic education” for students across the state. The governor has his own way of defining a “progressive” approach to public education, which just so happens to increase his own power over public education. While the pandemic interrupted his efforts to change education funding earlier this year, he is eying a new opportunity to make his mark on the issue.

The governor appointed Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to lead an effort to “reimagine” how technology could revolutionize an education system that is still modeled on the traditional teacher-student dynamic in a physical classroom. “Let’s start talking about really revolutionizing education,” Cuomo said at one of his recent daily briefings. “It’s about time.” Organized labor, education activists and others have expressed suspicions about the idea of listening to a billionaire philanthropist, considering his private sector tendencies.

Legislative leaders told City & State that they are willing to hear the governor out so long as stakeholders like parents, teachers and local officials are looped in. “I’m concerned, but (I’m) hopeful that all concerned parties will be joined together,” said Assembly Education Committee Chairman Michael Benedetto. “We’ll see.” That same conclusion applies to the issue of education at large.

“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state,” New York State United Teachers President Andrew Pallotta said in a statement. “Let’s recognize educators as the experts they are.” In other words, any attempts to disrupt the status quo could inflame longtime political conflicts in state politics.

It all gets very complicated when the local, state and federal governments operate on their own schedules when it comes to funding public schools. The governor and state lawmakers have to begin figuring things out in the second half of May. Local school budgets are being determined the following month. Plans at all levels can be interrupted at any time by the whims of the president and the spread of the coronavirus.

How will the politics surrounding school budgets play out? Experts agree on one thing. “Pick your crystal ball,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “Any analyst who makes predictions has better than a 50-50 chance of looking like an idiot.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.