Gov. Hochul's Budget Puts CFE Precedent at Risk

Gov. Hochul's Budget Puts CFE Precedent at Risk

Michael Rebell, CFE Counsel, Threatens New Lawsuit

In 2003, the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, held, in its decision in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York, that all students in this state have a right under the state constitution to the opportunity for “a sound basic education.” The court also decreed that the state government had an obligation to determine the number of dollars necessary to provide such an education and to develop an equitable formula to ensure this funding level is available to all schools. The state met that requirement by enacting a Foundation Aid Formula in 2007. However, because of delays caused by the 2008 recession and subsequent decisions of former governor Andrew Cuomo and others, the full amount of funding that the formula promised was not fully paid out until the current school year. 

Governor Kathy Hochul was instrumental in cutting through the prior political roadblocks and ensuring that the outstanding CFE funding amounts were fully appropriated over the past three years. But her actions so far this year have moved in a contrary direction: she issued a budget proposal for next year that would actually reduce state aid below the amount called for under the existing formula. Her budget proposal would also deny the State Education Department (SED) the small appropriation it has requested to (1) retain education finance experts and (2) develop a new Foundation Aid Formula to replace the current version, which is 17 years old and must be updated.

Last week, both the State Senate and the State Assembly called for reinstating the governor’s proposed funding cuts. They endorsed a $1 million appropriation for SED to develop a new foundation aid formula.      

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, who was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the CFE litigation, announced that, if the governor does not approve this critical appropriation for SED, he will work with other attorneys and advocates to file a new lawsuit to compel the state to develop a new foundation aid formula immediately. “A new formula that is responsive to current educational needs is absolutely necessary,” Rebell said. “Without it, the Court of Appeals’ CFE order will be defied, students’ constitutional rights will be ignored, and the state will revert to the kinds of unconstitutional political manipulations that were the practice before the Court of Appeals mandated a rational, needs-based approach to school funding.”

The current foundation aid formula is badly out of date. In the 17 years since it was adopted, there have been substantial changes in educational needs and in educational practices. Major new education policies like universal pre-K have taken effect. The demographics of the state’s student population are dramatically different. Poverty rates have increased throughout the state. The number of homeless students in New York City has climbed to over 10% of the student population; this includes increasing numbers of migrant students, some of whom have never attended any school. The pandemic has had a profound impact on school operations and student learning, and disparities in access to technology have become evident. In addition, many of the basic building blocks of the formula no longer make sense: poverty figures are largely based on the 2000 census; regional cost of living variations are calculated in accordance with data from 2006; and the extra costs of educating English Language Learners and students with disabilities have not been reconsidered for almost two decades. 

Last year, Rebell and the Center for Educational Equity called on the state to establish an independent, standing commission to develop a new funding formula and to monitor its implementation. That proposal has not been accepted by the legislature, but SED has indicated that it will establish a task force to work with the department in developing a new formula and to promote civic engagement in that process. The Center for Educational Equity has committed to supporting SED in developing a new formula and is calling upon the governor to approve the $1 million appropriation that will allow them to begin this work promptly.

The State Education Department is prepared to develop a new formula to deal with all these problems, respond to current educational realities, and ensure all schools can provide their students a sound basic education. The legislature and the governor must provide the funds necessary for them to do so in the budget that is slated to be adopted on April 1, 2024.

By: Michael Rebell
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