In a long-awaited victory for parents and education advocates, the state Legislature in April secured a major budget accomplishment: providing full funding for Foundation Aid, the state funding formula that distributes more resources to high-need schools. Lawmakers appropriated $1.4 billion more toward Foundation Aid in the state’s fiscal year 2021-2022 budget, with a commitment to fully funding Foundation Aid over the next three years. After that, the funding would become permanent. It was the result of a decade of activism pushing the state to fulfill its obligation to schools under the 2006 state court decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. This month, Gov. Kathy Hochul reiterated her commitment to fully funding Foundation Aid going forward.
This year’s public school funds also include a nearly $9 billion boost of federal funding for schools under the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. The influx of cash is distributed through the state Department of Education. The department approves school districts’ spending plans and routes the government funds to each district, where the money is distributed to individual schools. The New York City school district, encompassing 1,876 schools, is set to receive nearly $12 billion from the state plus another $7 billion in federal rescue plan funding over the next three years.
But six months after the budget was approved, some education justice advocates and local officials say that New York City’s Department of Education, as well as some other school districts, have not complied with the state mandate of including input from parents, teachers and community members in their spending plans. Some have raised concerns over the lack of specifics and transparency in the plans, which they argue could jeopardize the historic infusion of state and federal funding to New York’s public school system.
“What we don’t want to happen is that we spend all this money on education and then the critics come back and say, ‘See, students aren’t doing better and money doesn’t matter because money was wasted, or there was fraud or abuse,’” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.
A requirement set by the Legislature for school districts receiving an increase in Foundation Aid funding of more than 10% or $10 million is that school districts’ spending plans must include input from parents, educators and other stakeholders. The plans had to be publicly adopted by later than July 1, 2021 (a similar mandate clause also applies for school districts receiving federal rescue plan funds).
“I think the benchmarks are really the key thing that’s missing,” said Gripper, whose organization reviewed spending plans released by several school districts. One example she pointed to was the list item in the city DOE's spending plan which stated the department will use $378 million from their total funding on 3-K for All. But Gripper noted the plan did not elaborate on specifics regarding how that funding for universal 3-K was going to be implemented over the next three years.
Some school districts have engaged stakeholders through surveys, district meetings and social media. But others have not made a significant effort to involve stakeholders in the spending plan process. In September, Cindy Gallagher, a representative of the School Administrators Association of New York State, testified to lawmakers that dozens of school districts’ plans were not accessible on their websites. On Oct. 5, in a joint hearing by the state Senate’s committees on education, New York City education, and budget, more than a dozen community organizations, local representatives and education advocacy groups expressed dissatisfaction with the New York City DOE’s communication over its spending priorities.
The city DOE did not respond to a request for comment.
The department held town halls in each borough to discuss the city’s plans for its increased funding in May and June. But, according to the Education Council Consortium co-chair NeQuan McLean, the forums were often hijacked by discussions around school reopenings instead. He also noted the Education Council Consortium, a coalition of parent volunteers who advocate for students of New York City schools, had not been given the chance to review the city DOE’s funding application that was submitted to the state Education Department.
“There was no meaningful deep dive into how this money is going to be spent,” McLean, who also serves as president of Community Education Council of District 16 in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, told City & State after the October state Senate hearing. “A lot of time there’s always mandates around engagement. But it’s the difference between meaningful engagement and just engagement to engage and say, ‘We did it.’”
In New York City, schools have largely been given discretion in how they use the extra funding with little oversight from the city DOE. A handful of parents – all who are active members of advocacy groups and parent-led initiatives – told City & State they have not been informed by their childrens’ schools about the increased funding. Instead, schools have focused discussions with parents on bringing kids back to physical classrooms during the pandemic. City schools have returned to full in-person learning since Sept. 13 with a remote option only available for “medically fragile” students.
“One parent said they’re still asking parents to bring in paper towels and sanitizer. Why?” said state Sen. Robert Jackson, who led the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit before he was elected to public office and was present during the state Senate hearings. “The state of New York has all this money. It shouldn’t be asking average parents struggling to survive to bring them stuff into the classroom.”
According to Natasha Capers, director of the Coalition for Educational Justice, schools need guidance in how to manage the sudden influx of funding.
“Some of the schools don’t know how to handle this additional money because they’ve never had the additional money. They’ve been told their whole existence to do more with less,” said Capers, whose two children attend public schools in Manhattan and Queens. “So how do we make sure that they’re making good partnerships? And when they still do need more resources, that they have access to it and (are) not just told, ‘Well, we gave you more money.’”
Following the state Senate hearings, state lawmakers said they may revisit and strengthen the budget language related to the Foundation Aid’s stakeholder engagement requirement for the next fiscal year. “We can’t give districts all this money and not have accountability mechanisms to make sure that money gets to the students with the greatest needs, and that it’s invested in things that are not wasteful,” Gripper said.
Jackson said his office will also be looking at separate legislation to enforce specific school measures, including a bill that would mandate school districts reduce class sizes – a move that advocates see as especially important during the pandemic. He said stakeholders must work together so school districts’ spending of government funding is transparent and that “parents and advocates and unions and administrators have a say to ensure that it’s being spent properly.”
Natasha Ishak is a journalist covering politics, social issues, and culture in New York City.
NEXT STORY: The push to help New Yorkers age in place