Legislators want to fully fund school aid

The upcoming state budget gives state liberals a chance to win a yearslong fiscal fight with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Students at Phyl's Academy in Brooklyn.

Students at Phyl's Academy in Brooklyn. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political weakness has been fully on display in recent weeks. Democratic lawmakers approved legislation imposing new limits on solitary confinement, despite Cuomo’s past opposition, and they smoked the administration when it came to striking a deal on legalizing recreational marijuana the way they want to do it. The state budget, due April 1, offers liberal legislators a chance to follow this up with a victory over the governor on funding public schools.

Democratic lawmakers want to boost total education funding for local school districts by $3.5 billion more than Cuomo proposes. The governor has actually proposed to reduce state education spending by about $600 million, to help plug a multibillion budget deficit. Total education funding in the budget would still increase because of federal aid. While a budget deal could feature a compromise between the two sides, state lawmakers say they are holding out for total victory. “We're talking about a different approach to dealing with the needs of some of our neediest schools,” state Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer of Yonkers said in an interview. “This is a question of advocating for what we believe is right.” 

A potentially stinging rebuke of the three-term governor hinges on whether the budget includes a $1.4 billion increase in Foundation Aid (the primary state funding stream for school districts) as a down payment on the $4 billion over three years that Democratic legislators, activists and others say the state still has to pay districts, per a 2006 state court decision in the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v State of New York.

The politics surrounding the court case are complicated, but the stated purpose of the lawsuit was to force the state to adequately fund schools for students rich and poor. “We’re in 2021 (and) we still have not gotten it right,” state Sen. Robert Jackson of Manhattan, a co-plaintiff in that lawsuit, said at a March virtual press conference after both chambers of the Legislature included the $1.4 billion in funding in their respective one-house budgets. 

Those fiscal plans reflect efforts that began three decades ago, when Jackson and other parents founded an advocacy group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. 'When kids don't have a schoolyard to play in, no wood shop, no chemistry lab, when they're shuttled to lunch in 20-minute periods starting at 10:30 a.m... No one can tell me that's an appropriate education,'' Jackson told The New York Times in 1999. 

After years of protests and litigation, the state Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that New York state had failed to provide a “sound basic education,” which led to efforts to establish a new funding formula. Then-Gov. Eliott Spitzer and state lawmakers struck a deal to create Foundation Aid starting in the 2007-2008 school year. Then the Great Recession struck, and the state began falling short of fully funding its education formula. The shortfall now amounts to the $4 billion over three years that legislators are pushing for, with the help of organized labor and advocacy groups such as the Alliance for Quality Education. 

Throughout his time as governor, Cuomo has argued that the outstanding balance reflected nothing more than a null and void deal made with a predecessor. Actress Cynthia Nixon, a longtime spokesperson for AQE, would base her unsuccessful 2018 primary challenge partly on the issue of school funding. Cuomo’s opposition to restoring the funding only seemed to grow once Democrats flipped the state Senate that November for the first time in a decade and renewed their push to reassert their claim that the state owed $4 billion in retroactive Foundation Aid funding. “Ghosts of the past and distractions from the present,” he said in December 2018 of the CFE case and their efforts.

Three years later, the Cuomo administration position has yet to budget from its longtime position on the legacy of the 2006 decision. “The basic facts on this lawsuit that was decided 14 years ago are clear: It only applied to New York City and required that $1.93 billion in additional state, local, and federal revenues combined be provided to the City school district,” Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Department of Budget, said in a March 25 email. “Since this decision, the district’s budget has grown by $13 billion.”

The state Senate and Assembly remain united in their efforts to secure the $4 billion in funding over three years, but its ultimate fate depends on any final budget agreement reached by Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

New York state does spend more money per student than just about anywhere else in the country. Yet, graduation rates, test scores and teacher-to-student rations continue to leave the state in the middle of national rankings. Cuomo has said that means total education spending is not the issue; what matters is how much money is reaching the most needy students. Yet, despite many efforts, education spending remains a policy area largely unchanged during his years in office. Instead, a gentlemen’s agreement called “Shares” has continued to divide state education spending by region since the 1980s. Long Island gets 12.96%. New York City gets 38.86%. The remainder goes to the rest of the state. “All the hearings, all the discussions, all the reports, all the task forces for all these years, it was always 38.86,” Cuomo told Politico in early 2020. Legislators have defended the ongoing use of Shares as a necessary evil until a new, supposedly more equitable system could be set up.

State lawmakers have been pushing for years to rejigger the Foundation Aid formula, which supplements the property taxes that primarily fund public schools outside of New York City. “The Foundation Aid formula is unnecessarily tilted toward wealthier districts,” David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College, said in an interview. “(Suburban elected leaders) want a piece of their pie because every dollar in state aid is $1 less in property tax burden for their residents.” Districts that have seen more immigrant and working-class students added to their rolls in recent years also face disadvantages from outdated data points like 2000 Census data and the 2006 regional cost index that do not reflect their growing needs. This is especially true in certain downstate suburban areas that have become more economically and racially diverse in recent years. 

COVID-19 means rich and poor students alike need help making up for lost classroom time, while dealing with unprecedented mental health issues caused by a year of largely staying home. “This point is really, really critical in terms of our students’ transition back,” Raymond Sanchez, superintendent at the Ossining Union Free School District in Westchester County, said in an interview. “We have to think about giving them more time, and giving them the academic support that they need beyond the regular day.” More Foundation Aid would help, he added, though he remained skeptical that lawmakers would get any closer to beating Cuomo on Foundation Aid than they have in past budgets.

There is more to education funding than the $4 billion fight over CFE. State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa has said a top priority this year is making sure that federal relief money supplements rather than replaces state support for public schools. Lawmakers also oppose Cuomo’s proposal to consolidate different state funding streams that reimburse districts for buying things like school buses, textbooks and computers to save hundreds of millions in spending. Legislators warn funding “expense-based aid” this way would mean teachers who need classroom materials would have to compete against students who need transportation. Other points of contention include Cuomo’s proposed $1.34 billion cut in reimbursements to districts that lose revenue under the School Tax Relief program, which helps eligible people ages 65 and over pay their property taxes. While the state has received billions in new federal aid, more education spending also depends on the extent to which the political left will succeed in convincing the Senate and Assembly to increase taxes on the wealthy, over the objections of the governor as well. 

If Cuomo is aiming to fight legislators over the legacy of the CFE decision, the typically combative governor is being relatively quiet about it. Education makes up one of the biggest chunks of state spending, but the governor is not ranking it as one of his top budget priorities – which include marijuana legalization, policing reforms, rent relief and broadband access. “He is not publicly fighting them as much,” Jasmine Gripper, executive director of AQE, said in an interview. “This is the year to get it done.” 

A few political factors suggest legislators do have a unique opportunity this year. The federal government is providing $12 billion out of the $15 billion that Cuomo requested in unrestricted aid, which means the governor may not be as tight-fisted as he suggested earlier in the year. The governor is on the ropes politically, and legislative supermajorities Democrats won in the 2020 elections could theoretically override a gubernatorial veto of increased Foundation Aid. 

For now, at least, Team Cuomo is projecting a cooperative approach to determining school aid. “Budget negotiations are ongoing,” Klopott, the spokesperson for the state Division of Budget, said in the email a week before the April 1 budget deadline. “We are working with the Legislature to determine what additional resources for school aid are available.” 

Legislators working on the issue are cautiously optimistic, according to Assembly Education Chair Michael Benedetto of the Bronx. “We're on the cusp of declaring a tremendous victory in education,” he said in an interview. “We're keeping our fingers crossed.”