When Jamie Cruikshank first heard the state Senate will examine education funding, he was both extremely excited and extremely concerned.
The superintendent’s school district, Norwood-Norfolk Central School District, is a small, rural district in northern New York that is about 70 percent state aid-funded.
“Because we are so dependent upon state aid, if they don’t get it right, my students will suffer,” Cruikshank said.
The Senate announced last month that they would be hosting a slew of roundtables across New York to discuss Foundation Aid, a needs-based formula to determine state funding for each school district. But advocates, legislators and educators have all raised concerns about the formula itself and its implementation — or lack thereof — since it began in 2007.
Organized and led by state Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-37, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and state Sen. Brian Benjamin, D-30, chair of the Senate Committee on Budget and Revenues, the first roundtable to discuss these issues will kick off in Yonkers on Wednesday.
“Every New York student, regardless of zip code or school district, deserves access to a high-quality education,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement last month. “The hearing and roundtables will help provide guidance to the Senate Democratic Majority as we prepare for the upcoming budget process and state public education allocations.”
Foundation Aid was enacted in 2007 after a drawn-out lawsuit from New York City parents claiming their children’s schools were underfunded. The formula was meant to be a statewide remedy for unequal education in New York, with a lofty goal of phasing in $5.5 billion to hundreds of school districts across the state over the course of four years. The formula calculates each school district’s needs, and thus how much state funding they get, by factoring in variables such as family incomes under the poverty line in the district, the number of English-language learners, the number of students enrolled in free and reduced-price lunches, local taxes and the wealth of each district.
While the state fulfilled its commitment for the first two years, resulting in more resources for schools and higher student achievement, the 2008 recession led to a freeze of Foundation Aid, meaning cuts within school districts. The state then started borrowing money from schools to balance its own budget. School districts went from receiving $2.4 billion from the state from 2007 to 2009, to losing $2.7 billion to the state from 2010 to 2012.
“New York State was balancing its budgets on the backs of students,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director at the Alliance for Quality Education. “In 2016 they finally paid back all that was cut. Since then, the state has been putting money back in Foundation Aid, but they’re not using the formula — they’re altering it once again.”
Gripper and Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-116, said the formula is constantly tweaked by legislators in Albany for political reasons, which disproportionately impacts majority-minority, poor and rural school districts negatively.
Gripper also said the state has been putting in Foundation Aid a fraction of the over $1 billion the formula needs to work properly. According to the state Department of Education, the state now owes about $4 billion to Foundation Aid.
“They cry broke even though we’re one of the wealthiest states,” Gripper said. “The state needs to undo the educational racism they’re maintaining by denying students of color access to equality education.”
Cruikshank’s school district is one of the rural districts severely impacted, owed nearly $2 million from Foundation Aid.
“There’s a flaw here, and I believe many districts are significantly underfunded when it comes to Foundation Aid,” he said. “I think the formula is very complicated and convoluted.”
Cruikshank said variables the formula accounts for such as free and reduced-price lunches or property wealth, rather than income wealth, can inaccurately represent levels of wealth and needs within a district.
“In the more rural districts, they don’t have the resources to offer the same kinds of education opportunities such as AP offerings and language offerings,” said state Sen. Jen Metzger, D-42.
Within Metzger’s district, which is the most rural and largest geographic district within the Democratic conference, tax bases are small, a higher average of people are on fixed incomes compared to the state level, the senior population is higher than the state average, Metzger said. Her Senate district is owed over $100 million from Foundation Aid, according to AQE.
“You have the cost spread over a smaller number of taxpayers and many of them are just struggling to pay their taxes and stay in their homes,” Metzger said.
Add to that the declining school enrollment within her district, and you have more pressure on schools to keep up with cost per pupil increases.
“How do we make sure that all of our kids are being offered comparable educational resources and opportunities when they come from districts that have very different wealth and demographic circumstances?” Metzger asked.
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at email@example.com, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.