NY State Public Education:
Advocates Expect School Aid Formula Will Raise Student Achievement

by Bob Cohen
Bob is the Research and Public Policy Director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

In September, Syracuse children once again returned to school. Due to inadequate support by both the state and city in recent years, they had an all too familiar experience: teacher and staff layoffs, reduced athletic programming, increased class sizes at the secondary school level, and decreased mental heath services.
State aid to education got cut last year – the third year in a row schools in New York have faced either no increases to education funding, or cuts. And had the State Legislature not overridden the Governor’s veto of the Legislature’s budget, the cuts to education would have been even more severe last year. The result has been program cuts, staff layoffs, and property tax increases throughout the state.

Except this time – due to a landmark court decision coupled with grassroots activism throughout the state – there’s more than a ray of hope that things can change.
In the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, decided on June 26th, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, held that all public school students are entitled to a “meaningful high school education” under the state constitution, ensuring children a quality education from grades K through 12. The Court mandated that the Legislature and the Governor reform the state school aid formula by July 30, 2004.

The CFE case presents us with the best opportunity we have had in generations to significantly increase state aid to schools and to bring more equity between poorer and richer school districts. Although the CFE case came out of New York City, it will force changes in the entire way we allocate school aid because many, if not most, districts in the state don’t meet the new constitutional standard established by the court. Children are shortchanged by a system that is based on the geographic politics of the Legislature rather than the needs of kids. We need to fight for a new system that’s simple, predictable, and that awards state aid based on need.

One hundred Central New York area parents, teachers, school board members, superintendents, and other education supporters spoke out for school aid reform at the “Syracuse Regional Summit on Quality Education,” held on Tuesday, November 11th. Those attending identified an array of priorities for new state funding – from large classes to insufficient training for teachers.

The Syracuse event was one of a series of a regional forums sponsored around the state by the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a coalition of over 230 organizations of parents, children’s advocates, schools, teachers, clergy, and labor unions, and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which brought the landmark schools case, to get community input on the new state school aid formula to be developed in response to the CFE decision.

“The landmark schools case that was decided in June by New York’s highest court will benefit Syracuse schoolchildren as much as New York City kids, as many of our students face similar barriers to achievement: particularly, poverty, difficulties with the English language, and shortages of staff, textbooks and other educational resources,” said Pam Percival, President of Parents for Public Schools of Syracuse. “We have to speak with one voice around the state to ensure that the Legislature and the Governor address the most urgent needs of our schools, so we don’t lose another generation of children.”

AQE and CFE stress that a new funding plan must: (1) adequately fund all schools in the state so that all students will have smaller class sizes, qualified teachers, up-to-date equipment, modern and safe buildings, full-day pre-kindergarten, and all the additional resources needed to meet state standards required for a high school diploma; (2) have accountability measures to ensure that additional funds improve student achievement; (3) be simple and transparent and produce understandable results; and (4) be fair by not reducing any district’s spending levels.

I’m encouraged that so many Central New Yorkers came out on the 11th to speak out for school aid reform. We hope to use the momentum of this event to build a local affiliate of the Alliance for Quality Education to ensure that Central New York’s needs are considered when the state redesigns the school aid formula next year. The message we’re trying to get out is that we can get the kind of schools we want – if we speak out now.

People interested in getting involved with AQE’s campaign in Central New York should contact Bob Cohen of the AQE staff at (518) 465-4600 (ext. 104). You can also email Bob at <bcohen@citizenactionny.org>. AQE’s web page is: <www.aqeny.org>.