Fairer, Not More, Funding for Better Education

During a debate last month, Cuomo said that more funding is not the solution to improving student performance, considering that the New York State spends the most per student nationally while still ranking 40th in achievement. Instead, he pledged to improve funding distribution.

“The way we fund education, through the property tax system, by definition is going to be unfair. And it is,” he said. “The state is supposed to equalize or come close to equalizing with its funding.”

A week before his speech, Rutgers University and the Education Law Center released a National Report Card that grades and ranks states on how fairly they distribute their education funding.

New York received an A for effort but a dismal D for fairness of funding distribution. In fact, it is counted among 20 states with regressive funding systems, meaning that school districts with higher poverty rates actually receive less state and local revenue than those with lower poverty rates.

According to the most recent Public Education Finances Report, the state spent an average of $17,713 per student during the 2007-2008 fiscal year. This figure should vary between school districts; higher-income districts earn extra revenue generated by higher property taxes, so they should receive less than lower-income districts.

Yet the report found that this was not the case in New York. Districts with almost all households living above the poverty line receive approximately $17,012 per student while those with a third of households living below the line receive $3,034 less state funding. On average, lower-income districts receive 18% less funding than higher-income districts.

A revised version of the report, updated to reflect the recently released 2007-2008 Census data, show an improvement of two percentage points compared to the 2006-2007 data, putting the figure at 16%. The revision also saw an increase in average spending per student by $1,100.

Executive Director of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) Geri Palast credit the improvements to CFE’s successful litigation in 2006 against the state and former Governor Pataki that resulted in the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007.

The Act was put into place to ensure that all New York public schools meet their constitutional obligation in providing a sound education through high school despite of economic conditions. The court ruled that the state should increase the education budget by more than $7 billion within the next four years, with about $3.2 billion going toward New York City students from lower-income households.

“But the State kept their obligations for one year then essentially walked away,” said Karl Corn, a spokesperson from the New York State United Teachers. A year into the Act, the 2008 recession propelled drastic budget cuts and the suspension of CFE funds. Payments are expected to resume next year although the funding phase has been extended from four to seven years.

“The fact is, in education, money does matter,” Corn said. “Funding is used to reduce class size, provide quality early education to high-need children and bring the latest technology into classrooms.”

Danielle Farrie, Research Director of the Education Law Center, thinks that the relationship between funding and student achievement is not so simple. “They are difficult to correlate and it would require a far more complicated analysis that was beyond the scope of our report,” she said in an e-mail interview.

“However, by simple correlation, we do find that student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress does show that states that score well on the Report Card do have better outcomes,” said Farrie.

Corn agreed that fairer funding distribution, though more difficult to implement than a simple budget increase, might be the better solution to low student achievement. “Low-need school districts in many parts of the State have graduation rates in the high 90s,” he said. “Now is that good enough? No, because school districts in the Big Five and other urban areas are unacceptably low.”

The gap in achievement between mostly rural school districts with graduation rates above 90% and mostly urban school districts with rates below 50% result in the state’s 70.8% average, below the national average of 74.9% despite significantly higher funding per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

However, a brief comparison between school district maps from the New York City Department of Education of the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards in Math and English and maps of average expenditure per student show an inverse correlation, meaning that funding is already focused toward school districts with higher need.

Yet Corn believes that there is still much to be done. “We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and work hard to improve student achievement, but we need to address the problems holistically, including helping to lift African-American and Latino families out of poverty. We know that poverty plays a key role as does teacher quality.”

Nevertheless, he disagrees with Cuomo’s decision to cut the education budget and cap property taxes. “The incoming administration needs to stop looking at education as an expense that needs to be capped and cut, but as an investment,” said Corn. “If we want to revitalize the economy, boost businesses, create more jobs, then it’s going to be very difficult if we decimate the education system.”

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