School groups roll out wish lists

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

New York State’s public education establishment has issued its annual state budget recommendations for the 2019-20 school year—and in keeping with what’s become an end-of-year Albany tradition, the numbers bear little relation to fiscal reality.

The state Board of Regents, New York’s supreme education policy-making body, today proposed a $2.1 billion increase in state Foundation Aid to school districts for the 2019-20 school year. The amount includes “$1.66 billion in aid formula increases, $410 million in statutory reimbursement-based aid increases, $25 million for the expansion of career and technical education (CTE) programs and $26 million for universal prekindergarten expansion.”

Board members also unanimously advanced a separate list of what their news release called “a bold and comprehensive set of funding proposals” that came to more than $70 million.

The recommendation from the state’s supreme education policymaking body comes a few days after the Educational Conference Board (ECB)—an umbrella group including organizations of school boards and school administrators, as well as the statewide teachers’ union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). The ECB issued its own call for a $2.2 billion hike in state aid next year.

The two wish lists differ slightly in their details; for example, the Regents want $1.66 billion in enrollment-driven “formula aid” while the ECB plan seeks $1.3 billion more in this category. Like the Regents, the ECB groups want at least $400 million more for expense-based reimbursements for items such as student transportation and special education, and both aid proposals also call for more money for programs targeted at English-language learners.

Reality checks

Under both plans, 2019-20 state aid to school districts would be boosted over current amounts by nearly 8 percent—or nearly four times the projected rate of inflation, at a time when statewide public school enrollments have been slowly but steadily spiraling downward. As of 2016, the latest year for which comparative data available, New York led all states with public school spending of $22,316 per pupil, 90 percent above the U.S. average.

The $2.2 billion in school aid hikes recommended by the Regents and the ECB would be more than double the $956 million aid increase assumed in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest financial plan update.

If Cuomo adheres (as repeatedly promised) to his self-imposed 2 percent cap on state operating funds growth in the next state budget, the school aid increases sought by the Regents and the ECB would consume virtually all allowable added state spending—after, that is, Cuomo closes a budget gap projected at $402 million, which the state faces even with spending capped at 2 percent.

Of course, the Regents are fully aware of the actual state budget outlook—as are New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the other school fiscally sophisticated advocacy groups in the ECB. If they’re following the news, they are also aware of a stock market trend that could undermine the state’s economy and revenue base.

But just because the proposals are unrealistic doesn’t make them irrelevant. The annual Regents and school lobby budget wish lists form the basis for spending pressure by ECB legislative allies who maintain (falsely) that the original school aid overhaul enacted in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer was a “promise” the state has repeatedly broken since the Great Recession.

Loosening the cap

In addition to calling for an aid increase that would effectively require an increases in state taxes, the Conference Board also called for a loosening of the statewide cap on school property tax levies, a key Cuomo initiative first enacted in 2011 and due for extension next year.

In districts outside New York City, Yonkers and the four largest upstate cities, the cap requires approval by a 60 percent supermajority of district voters for any proposed school budget exceeding an allowable levy limit of 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower (subject to varying local allowances). The ECB wants the cap raised to a flat 2 percent.

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- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.