Fix NY's broken formula for distributing school aid
How much more funding should New York state provide to Syracuse public schools? A report by the Citizens Budget Commission, for which I was the primary author, says that an increase of $83 million is needed for the City of Syracuse school district. The additional funds should come from Foundation Aid, the largest source of State aid, which is designed to supplement local funding for school districts to help provide enough resources for a sound education.
Download the Report and AppendicesA Better Foundation Aid Formula
But the question of how much additional funding is needed is not unique to Syracuse. It applies to many other communities as well.
The appropriate level of state funding for education is a key negotiating point for the state budget, which is due by April 1. It's crucial, because the state Constitution requires that New York provide students with a sound basic education, and that obligation is not being met in all school districts. So, what does it take to fix the shortfall?
The answer has two parts - money and a formula for distributing it. Not as much is needed statewide as some suggest, if the state is willing to make politically difficult decisions regarding how the funds are distributed.
The challenge is this: The greatest need is in poorer districts, but wealthy districts are stronger politically. This has resulted in wealthy districts being over-funded at the expense of poorer ones.
A subsequent question then is this: Will that imbalance be perpetuated, as the funding level is determined? If the answer is "yes", the cost of properly funding high-need districts will grow.
While there is a consensus that state funding must be increased, the range of estimates is substantial. Advocates who have filed suit to increase funding say that an additional $4.3 billion is needed next year. The Board of Regents requested $2.1 billion, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has budgeted $430 million in additional Foundation Aid.
That's on top of the more than $24 billion in aid to local school districts that the state already provides. New York's average per-pupil spending - $22,556 - is already the highest in the nation.
One of the reasons New York school district education spending is so high - and yet a sound basic education has not been provided in every district - is that the state has long had a practice of maintaining its school aid funding for every district, no matter how much each district spends. The state does not want to reduce Foundation Aid for any district and would prefer to increase it for every district, regardless of actual need, changing demographics, decreasing enrollment or other factors.
In the budget proposed by the governor in January, every school district will get an increase in Foundation Aid of at least 1 percent. Only a handful of high-poverty districts will see growth over 3 percent.
The final distribution is problematic because the underlying formula is flawed. It includes features that provide too many resources to some districts while shortchanging others, creating an imbalance.
What's needed is to increase funding for poorer districts without drastically increasing the burden on state taxpayers. The CBC report found that only $569 million in additional funding is required if the state fixes the Foundation Aid formula and redirects $2.7 billion to needy districts.
Yet the governor's proposed budget would increase Foundation Aid for even the wealthiest of districts, perpetuating current inequities and making the problem harder to solve.
In contrast, CBC's proposed improvements to the formula would return it to its intended purpose: directing aid to the neediest districts based on student need and local ability to pay. The state's poor districts would receive more Foundation Aid, and wealthy districts would receive less. For example, under CBC's proposed formula, while the City of Syracuse school district would see an increase of $83 million to $342 million, Skaneateles would lose their current $4 million Foundation Aid allocation.
Calls to add billions to state spending do not address the fundamental flaws in the current distribution formula. Saddling taxpayers with an additional $4.3 billion liability would increase costs unnecessarily and undermine the fiscal sustainability of the state's education funding formulas.
The state has a constitutional obligation that must be met, but taxpayers should not pay more than is needed to meet it.