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Opinion

Ending The School Aid Charade


gov cuomo edu

(photo: governor's office)


It is budget season in New York State and the annual game of determining the amount of state aid each of the 674 school districts will receive is in full swing. Every district and its legislators will fervently argue that more school aid is needed, that its schools are underfunded, and that its students will suffer serious harm if more money isn’t devoted to them as soon as possible. But in fact, the vast majority of New York’s schools are generously funded, while our results in terms of achievement are only mediocre. Instead of targeting additional aid to the few truly needy districts, all are given more.

As is the case in most states, New York public schools are primarily a local responsibility. Each school district runs its own schools, has its own contract with the teachers union, and relies on local property taxes to fund a large part of its costs. State school aid is meant to supplement the local tax contribution so that children in ‘low wealth’ districts are not denied the ‘sound basic education’ guaranteed by the State Constitution.

Each year a chorus of school advocates including the teachers union, school administrators, and state legislators argue for more state school aid. Whatever increase the Governor proposes is inevitably denounced as too little. The higher amount recommended by the State Education Department (SED) (controlled not by the Governor but by the Legislature via the State Board of Regents) is also decried as too low. Inevitably, some compromise amount is set in the state budget that is always a significant increase over the prior year.

The total amount of legislatively-approved school aid statewide rose 32% percent over the ten years between 2006 and 2017 and totaled more than $28 billion in fiscal year 2018, the largest expense in the state’s operating funds budget. Combined with local allocations, New York State school districts now spend a whopping $69 billion a year, an average of more than $25,000 per student, by far the highest amount in the country.

The game in its current form has been played since 2011, following the recession of 2008 when across-the-board school-aid cuts were imposed, when the Governor and the Legislature agreed to an annual ‘cap’ on the growth of school aid tied to growth in personal income and used a ‘foundation formula’ to determine the amount of aid each district would get, based on its number of poor students, English language learners, students with disabilities, regional cost differences, property values, and wealthy residents.

But the cap has never really been adhered to, and the results of the foundation formula are undermined through the addition of other kinds of aid (e.g. transportation, high tax aid) and foundation aid ‘hold harmless’ provisions ensuring that no district ever loses aid and indeed, that all get at least some increase each year no matter what they spend.

Why does this game go on? First, school aid is the primary vehicle for state legislators to ‘bring home the bacon’ and demonstrate effectiveness to their voters. The wealthiest school districts are in suburban areas where residents have shown the value they attach to top quality schools by paying very high property taxes. Even though these districts are already spending outsized amounts per pupil on their schools, they want more and their representatives need to get it for them. The Governor needs the support of these legislators for other parts of his agenda, so he is loath to disappoint them.

Second, public education advocates continue to make the argument that there are unmet school needs as revealed by the shortfall between aid amounts and what would have been provided under the foundation formula had it continued to be applied as approved in a lawsuit filed by a consortium known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE).

The lawsuit ended in a settlement in 2007, and, while clearly articulating the right of all children in New York to free quality education, did not legally require implementation of its calculations of optimum aid. The Governor has called the CFE aid formula a ‘ghost of the past’ but the state teachers union and an alliance of other advocacy groups continue to insist that there is a shortfall of at least $4 billion in state school aid.

It is true that some school districts are underfunded and should receive more state aid to make up for their high number of poor students and their low property tax wealth. But there are less than 35 districts in this category and their unmet needs total less than $200 million. This shortfall could easily be filled by re-allocating a small part of the money that is going to school districts that do not need it; they are already spending far more than enough.

The 62 wealthiest districts in New York are receiving almost $5,000 a year in state school aid and are spending an average of $30,500 per student per year. The 68 poorest districts are getting much more aid – an average of $15,700 per student – but because they don’t have sufficient local resources, they can spend only $22,000 per student per year. There is no educational reason to give the wealthier districts any aid, and certainly no more than they are getting.

Surely, everyone involved in setting school aid amounts knows this. But the CFE advocates don’t want to alienate a large of portion of their support from the wealthy districts by arguing only for targeted aid increases and the legislative representatives of the well-funded school districts are certainly not going to kill the golden goose. So we continue with a charade of hand-wringing about the need for more school funding state-wide.

This year Governor Cuomo has proposed almost $1 billion in additional aid, SED wants more than $2 billion more, and the CFE groups are still demanding $4 billion. The reality is there is no justification for more state school aid, it just needs to be re-allocated and targeted to the specific districts that are actually needy. But more school aid there surely will be. This is especially infuriating when the Governor is proposing to reduce spending on Medicaid to address an expected $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year.

In his second State of the State address, in 2012, Governor Cuomo complained that all the adults in the public school system have lobbyists pressing for more spending and that he would now be the students’ lobbyist. But over time, he has made compromises with the political realities; while his school aid proposals are accompanied by rhetorical acknowledgement of the need for better targeting, the chorus of calls for everyone everywhere in the state to receive more school funding continues. It is well past time for this charade to end.

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Carol Kellermann was President of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Prevailing Wage Extension Would Kill Jobs and Limit Housing for New Yorkers


gov cuomo moynihan

(photo: governor's office)


If there’s one thing that New Yorkers can agree on, it’s that we should always strive to create new jobs, not take them away. Amazon’s recent decision to withdraw its planned “HQ2” from Long Island City is an example of us failing on this front. However, public officials still have an opportunity to redeem themselves by protecting local workers from a proposed prevailing wage expansion.

Discussions are currently underway in Albany to extend prevailing wage requirements to private construction projects and could cost New York City thousands of jobs. Elected officials should heed the warnings of community leaders and push back against powerful unions that are advancing their own agenda at the expense of New York’s working class.

The dangers of expanding the prevailing wage to private work projects are numerous. First, advancing this initiative neglects to consider the negative consequences it will have on the city’s working families. In the past, Governor Cuomo has said, “Construction with public subsidies should be subject to the prevailing wage so they’re built right, they’re built fairly, they’re built union.” However, there’s no guarantee that this requirement will result in projects being built right and fairly—instead, the only thing it assures is that non-union workers are forced out of the hiring pool as developers are forced to hire union.  

As a result, any efforts to extend the prevailing wage to private projects directly impacts workers of color, who make up the majority of the non-union workforce. Per industry data, roughly three quarters of non-union workers are either black or Latino and live in one of the city’s five boroughs. This is in part due to the fact that unions have historically imposed barriers to entry for people of color, which persist to this day. Just two months ago, for example, six African-American engineers at the LaGuardia Airport renovation project filed a lawsuit against the Operating Engineers Local 15 chapter for alleged discriminatory hiring practices and treatment by union supervisors.

Beyond the detrimental effects it would have on minority workers, instituting a prevailing wage requirement at private projects would actually diverge from the dominant trend in the city’s construction industry. According to our analysis of building permit numbers provided by the city, approximately 80 percent of private construction work is now being done by non-union workers.  

Additionally, these workers have secured benefits on par with those of union members. On average, they earn $20 per hour, competitive health care packages, and 401(k) packages that allow them to secure their futures. Therefore, contrary to some misconceptions, opposition to prevailing wage does not equate disregard for workers’ rights.

Expanding the prevailing wage would also have a harmful effect on housing opportunities for many of these non-union workers. New York has an affordable housing shortage, and a prevailing wage will only make this housing crisis worse. The Independent Budget Office found that a prevailing wage requirement would increase construction costs by 23 percent. Additionally, such an increase would significantly alter Mayor de Blasio’s plan to create 80,000 desperately needed new affordable housing units, or simply cost an additional $4.2 billion.   

Ultimately, those same hard-working New Yorkers who are being left out of prevailing wage discussions are the ones who stand to be affected most by it. Our elected leaders should stand up to powerful union interests and their agenda by securing the economic well-being of the construction industry and the workers that build it up.

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Clark Peña is Director of Advocacy at the Construction Workforce Project. On Twitter @CWPNYC.

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Addressing the Crisis of Family Separation Here in New York


reunion hug prison visit


It is time to address the crisis of family separation. This time, it’s not about the humanitarian emergency on our nation’s southern border, but our own homegrown crisis that affects New York’s approximately 80,000 children with a parent in prison. Most of these children deeply miss and want to visit their mothers or fathers, yet distance is a barrier, and many of New York’s 54 prisons are not accessible by public transportation.

Time and again, constituents from across the state have asked us for help. Grandmothers like Mrs. Coleman who was unable to take her grandchildren in Brooklyn to see their mother when she was incarcerated near the Canadian border. She once drove through the night so as not to miss school and work, her grandchildren asleep in the back, and scarily, almost fell asleep at the wheel. Children like Jeremiah and Jonathan, who used to see their father monthly when he was an hour away by MetroNorth, but now have no affordable way to travel 10 hours to see him. And Brianna and Isaiah, from Buffalo, who have seen their mother only once since she was moved to Taconic Correctional Facility, almost 400 miles away.

There are four bills before the New York Senate and Assembly that would address these issues: the Visiting Bus, Proximity, Restoring 7 Day Visiting, and Codifying Visiting bills will improve children’s access to their parents, strengthen family connections, and promote the correctional and public safety goals of rehabilitation and successful reentry. Many prison officials—including former Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer—report that visiting improves the prison environment, promotes program participation and rehabilitation, and increases the likelihood of successful reentry.

The Visiting Bus bill restores free transportation for families visiting a New York State Prison. In 1973, in the aftermath of the Attica Uprising, New York State undertook a series of reforms that included these free visiting buses. The buses operated for 38 years until their funding was eliminated from the state budget in 2011.

Visiting buses are more cost-effective and less onerous on families if people need not travel great distances to visit a loved one. The Proximity bill will place parents in the prison as close to their children as possible if the parent, the child, and the child’s caregiver also agree, and only after the state corrections department’s existing assignment criteria of security, health, and programming needs are satisfied.  

When prison visit rooms are open every day, families have more flexibility to visit as well as to visit two days in a row, making the most of their time and resources they spent to travel to the facility. Only maximum security prisons currently offer visiting every day. The Restore 7 Day Visits bill would remedy this. New York State has long been a national leader in offering in-person visiting. The Codifying Visiting bill ensures in-person, contact visits are a right throughout New York that cannot be replaced by video visiting.

Taken together, these bills strengthen a lifeline between parents and children who often grapple with their parent’s incarceration in isolation, fearing someone will find out and treat them differently as a result. Visiting lessens this isolation and stigma, maintains the parent-child relationship, and allows children to see others in the visiting room and realize they are not alone.

This is not simply a downstate issue. Today, 60% of incarcerated women and 50% of incarcerated men in state prisons come from areas outside of New York City. It affects all of us, and it is up to all of us to ensure that no family will have to choose between bringing a child to see his or her parent or putting groceries on the table.

Just as Mrs. Coleman and her grandchildren have asked us for help, we urge our colleagues in the Legislature and Governor’s office to pass these bills, fund the visiting buses, and strengthen this lifeline for thousands of children and families.

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Assemblymembers Carmen De La Rosa and David Weprin are a member and the chair, respectively, of the New York Assembly Committee on Correction. On Twitter @CnDelarosa & @DavidWeprin.

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