New York City

A decade ago, schools were promised more aid. Next year, it could arrive.

Why newly empowered Democrats will fight to increase school funding in the upcoming budget.

The school aid New York was ordered to provide a decade ago could arrive next year.

The school aid New York was ordered to provide a decade ago could arrive next year. Office of the Governor

A number of education issues will crop up for state lawmakers in January – how many charter schools should be allowed in New York City, whether to redesign teacher evaluations, the question of reforming discipline in schools, just to name a few. But in the eyes of some newly empowered Democrats in the state Legislature, one problem must be solved first: school funding.

In the budget deal made this past spring, lawmakers agreed on a $1 billion bump in education spending – considerably higher than the $769 million increase that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed. In the past, the Assembly has proposed larger increases – $1.5 billion in 2018 – while the Republican-controlled state Senate has proposed education spending that usually falls somewhere in between the governor and the Assembly.

In the upcoming budget negotiations, however, Cuomo will have to contend with two Democratic-controlled chambers, and the incoming state Senate will likely fight for increases to education spending that rivals the Assembly.

“There are many districts that need and are owed additional funding,” said state Sen. Shelley Mayer, who has been the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “Clearly, that’s going to be a focus of many of our urban districts, and some of our suburban districts, and I suspect there are others that really either are owed or need additional funds in order to provide a sound and basic education.”

That language – a “sound basic education” – was used in a 1993 lawsuit against the state by a group of parents and advocates called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which asserted that the state’s education funding was unconstitutional because it failed to provide students in New York City schools with the opportunity for a “sound basic education.”

The lawsuit dragged on for 13 years until 2006, when the state Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s favor, requiring the state to direct more money to New York City classrooms – $1.93 billion plus inflation, to be exact. In a move to address the constitutional mandate of providing a “sound basic education,” the next year, New York enacted the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, promising an additional $7 billion in school funding statewide over four years, with $5.5 billion going to Foundation Aid – a formula that calculates funding by district based on the cost of education, student need and local ability to pay.

Those plans stalled when the recession hit in 2009, and education advocates argue that while the state has recovered from the blows of financial crisis, school funding never returned to what was promised more than a decade ago. The advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education estimates that more than $4 billion is still owed in Foundation Aid.

One of the state Legislature’s newest members is particularly close to this issue, as he was involved with Campaign for Fiscal Equity from the beginning. Robert Jackson, the newly elected state senator in the 31st District, was a lead plaintiff on the 1993 lawsuit, and has been involved in the fight first while serving on Community School Board 6, then as a city councilman for 12 years. For Jackson, securing the necessary funds as calculated by the Foundation Aid formula is key.

“I’m looking to see that that happens this session,” Jackson said. “It’s a continuous struggle and continuous battle, because you’re going to have some naysayers that say that New York City is receiving too much money. Or, some people like the governor may say, ‘Well, we’ve already dealt with CFE.’ But I will tell them to their face: ‘No you have not.’”

To be sure, education funding in New York is already a contentious issue, considering New York spends more per student than any other state. Aid for the 2018-2019 school year is expected to total more than $26 billion, including an increase of $618 million through Foundation Aid.

Some people like the governor may say, ‘Well, we’ve already dealt with CFE.’ But I will tell them to their face: ‘No you have not.’ – state Sen.-elect Robert Jackson

Democratic leaders in both the state Senate and Assembly will fight for even steeper increases next year. “Clearly, there’s a strong appetite to have the state meet its full obligation under the CFE lawsuit to fund schools to the extent that we’re required to do so,” Mayer said. Mayer, who first won the 37th Senate District seat in a special election in April, has only served on the Senate Education Committee for a few months, but has six years of experience as an assemblywoman representing Yonkers.

“The Assembly Democratic Conference always fought tooth and nail to get more money for school funding,” she said. “We just couldn’t always get all that was deserved. So I’m hopeful that this is a great moment to move forward on this very basic priority for every district. That’s the No. 1 issue.”

Still, lawmakers striving for more school funding will likely encounter some pushback in the state budget process, a series of negotiations in which the governor and state Legislature hammer out agreements on everything from an opioid tax to investments in water infrastructure. Making school aid stand out as a priority will always be a challenge, Jackson said, but one he’s hopeful he’ll win.

“People are going to have their own priorities – we have to fund the MTA, we have to fund the New York health care act, we have to pass the Reproductive Health Act, we must deal with environmental concerns in our state and our country, we have to deal with the DREAM Act, we have to deal with the Liberty Act – all of these are major issues,” he said. “But right now, you’re talking about stuff that we should pass into law.” What makes increasing school aid a somewhat simpler issue, in Jackson’s view, is that the state’s commitment to Foundation Aid increases has already been established.

While Jackson is poised to be a leader on education issues in the Senate, he’s not the only one eyeing the education committee chairmanship. The outgoing Senate Education Committee chairman, Republican state Sen. Carl Marcellino, lost his re-election bid in November and Jackson and Mayer are both strong contenders to replace him, with Jackson having chaired the New York City Council Education Committee, and Mayer advocating for public schools in the Assembly.

“It’s up to the leader, and I’m sure she’ll make a decision in the coming weeks,” Mayer said. “I look forward to whatever she decides.” What’s clear, no matter who leads the committee, is that Senate Democrats will be a force for the governor to reckon with.

“It’s important that we, as a Senate, focus less on the partisanship, and collaborate with our colleagues across the aisle,” said John Liu, state senator-elect in the 11th District. “But make no mistake, we are a firm Democratic majority, and many of the issues that we as Democrats, and the majority of New York state residents as a whole, care about, have been pushed off to the side too long. Those priorities, educational and otherwise, will now come to the fore.”