Actions by policymakers earlier this month raised - and then dashed - the hopes and aspirations of New York City students and families. On November 13, the State Board of Regents released the report of its Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures. That document calls for rigorous but flexible new approaches to diploma and graduation requirements, emphasizing performance assessments, and adding real-world writing skills, civic readiness, media literacy, financial literacy, and performing arts, among other things, to existing diploma requirements. The report stresses that, for these new approaches to be fully and equitably realized, “adequate funding must be provided to local school districts to implement these important shifts” (p. 33.)
Three days later, however, Mayor Eric Adams announced that the City’s deteriorating financial circumstances necessitated mid-year budget cuts for the New York City Public Schools totaling $547 million this fiscal year and $600 million next year. The cuts are expected to force immediate reductions in the Summer Rising program for middle school students, eliminate thousands of universal prekindergarten slots, and afford less funding for community schools, as well as the City’s highly successful Civics for All program.
With federal stimulus money running out next year, the pressure to cut education services in the City -- and throughout the state -- is likely to increase as the state and city budget appropriations are debated this spring. Indeed, the Citizens Budget Commission foresees a municipal budget gap of over $11 billion for FY 2025.
Yet current educational needs are even more pressing than they were last year at this time: the migrant crisis has deepened, and less progress has been made than expected in dealing with the learning losses of the pandemic years. In addition, new initiatives for improving literacy, promoting civic readiness, and developing community schools offering important wraparound services have proven their value and must be expanded to meet the needs of all New York City students. The Regents’ Commission’s new diploma and graduation recommendations also hold great promise for improving educational opportunity and achievement, but, as stated above, effective implementation of these initiatives will also require adequate funding.
The current fiscal year saw a momentous achievement for education funding: the Foundation Aid Formula, adopted in 2007 by the governor and legislature in the wake of the CFE v. State of New York litigation, was finally fully funded. However, the lengthy delays in providing the promised funds blunted the intended positive impact of the funding increases. Moreover, no adjustments were made over the years in the specifics of the formula to account for new education policies and to meet changing student needs, so the Foundation Aid Formula is now badly outdated.
Now that the old formula has been fully paid out, how will the State comply with its obligation, as mandated by the state’s highest court in its CFE decision, to “ascertain the actual cost of providing a sound basic education [and to ensure] every school … would have the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for a sound basic education”? What methodology will the governor and the legislature use to determine that constitutional school-funding allocations will be provided in 2024-2025 and the years to come?
Last year, the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, called on the State to establish an independent, standing commission to develop a new funding formula and to monitor its implementation. Although bills to establish such a commission were introduced by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell and Senator Robert Jackson, neither bill was enacted, and neither the governor nor the legislature provided the state education department its requested funding to retain national experts to help develop a new school aid formula.
The development of a new formula to avoid unconstitutional school budget cuts for the next fiscal year and to fund important new initiatives cannot wait until the budget hearings and negotiations in the spring. The governor, the legislature, or the regents need to appoint a representative group of knowledgeable New Yorkers and educational finance experts to undertake an analysis of current educational needs and recommend a tentative new funding formula for 2024-2025. This group should also examine ways to eliminate excessive or wasteful expenditures (like the $1.3 billion currently being spent on private school special education placements and services), abolish unnecessary state mandates, and promote cost-effective practices without sacrificing educational quality and students’ rights. Further analysis and refinement of this formula can then be undertaken over the next year, including a mechanism for independent monitoring of its implementation.
Unless state leaders pay immediate attention to the looming funding crisis for education in New York State, the legislature will likely use the outdated Foundation Aid Formula as a base for next year’s funding, with perhaps an arbitrary small percentage increase in allocations to each district. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students in New York City and throughout the state will be denied vital educational services, the extensive learning losses of the pandemic era will not be ameliorated, and promising new initiatives will go unrealized. Bottom line: It will mean the governor and the legislature will continue to deny the state’s children their right to the opportunity for a sound basic education, guaranteed by Article XI of the New York State Constitution.