(photo: The Governor's Office)
The annual Albany showdown over school aid started early this year. Even before Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech, new State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for a permanent cap on local property tax increases to fund schools, signaling agreement with the governor’s long-held position.
So where’s the dispute?
Other legislators, particularly the Assembly’s powerful New York City delegation led by Speaker Carl Heastie, will likely oppose the measure. Taking their cue from teacher unions and other advocates for increased education spending, city pols have no need to worry over the cap.
The controversy is less between Democrats and Republicans (Cuomo and both legislative majorities are Democrats) and more between city and suburban voters. Under New York’s school finance laws, big cities, including New York, fund their schools from general revenues, supplemented by state and federal aid. Suburban and rural districts, though, fund their local burden by dedicated property taxes, so the cap is enormously consequential to those residents’ bottom line while far from obvious to city voters.
When was the last time a city legislator was criticized – let alone lost an election – for failing to bring home the state aid bacon? Never. It’s a non-issue because we don’t see the dollar for dollar trade-off between local property taxes and state school support. But that is often the biggest issue upstate and on Long Island. Every penny from the state offsets identifiable local school taxes. And property taxes are a particularly painful drain on suburban homeowners since, unlike paychecks, property values are not easily liquidated to pay the taxman.
But there’s a solution to the city/suburban school aid impasse. Foundation Aid to the rescue!
Foundation Aid is based on a complex formula for distributing state money to local school districts. If property taxes are capped, then Foundation Aid can pick up the increased burden if it is based on far more progressive state income taxes.
Moving school funding from dependence on local revenues to state sources makes all kinds of sense and can be done without further burdening middle-class taxpayers who need relief, not replacement of one tax burden for another.
An incremental increase in marginal income tax rates on high-wealth individuals to meet the needs of kids and overburdened middle class residents of the state’s highest-need districts makes sense. Those with high net-worth just got a bonanza from the federal tax cut, far in excess and disproportionate to lower earners. Taking a slice from that inequity to support middle class adults and better educate over 3 million New York children seems a fair solution to the Albany impasse.
In addition, an increase in Foundation Aid would allow the state to make needed tweaks to the formula itself, promoting Cuomo’s promise to divert resources from better financed districts and schools to those more in need. The Educational Conference Board, a statewide coalition of district administrators and parents, recommends reweighting categories of Foundation Aid more efficiently, basing assistance on student poverty, disability, enrollment growth, English proficiency, and population density.
Sometimes, legislative compromise can yield better solutions than opponents’ original, polarized stands. This year, state school finance reform presents such an opportunity for reducing local taxpayer burdens while improving education. Legislators and the governor should seize the moment.
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. On Twitter @BloomfieldDavid.