Funding for public education in New York State is in crisis.
Our front page last week detailed the excruciating problems in each of our local districts. In rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo, which has had trouble passing budgets in recent years, the majority of board members say they want no tax-levy increase.
We’re painfully aware of Hilltown residents who say they must leave their homes because they can’t afford the taxes. Poor districts face a double whammy: Their state aid has been cut disproportionately, and they are the least likely to be able to remedy that cut by raising more through local property taxes.
While suburban Voorheesville and Guilderland are comparatively wealthier — with fewer than a tenth of their students getting free or reduced-price lunches as opposed to a third of BKW’s — they, too, face difficult problems as state aid and property values stagnate and costs for health care and pensions rise.
A rollover budget at Voorheesville would raise property taxes by nearly 8 percent. State law now caps the levy increase at about 2 percent unless 60 percent of the voters approve a greater hike.
“This is a horrible thing school districts are facing, and I’m not saying poorer schools shouldn’t get help,” said Voorheesville’s business administrator, Gregory Diefenbach, “but how the distribution goes and how it’s handed out needs to be looked at.” He’s right; it does need to be looked at — and changed.
At Guilderland, which is trying to close a $2.1 million revenue gap in a roughly $90 million budget, students, teachers, and parents last Tuesday lined up at a microphone to plead with the school board not to make cuts, or to restore cuts that took 120 jobs over the last three years.
The board, of course, does not want to make those cuts any more than the administrators recommending them. It is painful to dismantle years of work building fine programs.
Led by Superintendent Marie Wiles, Guilderland has launched an advocacy campaign, urging residents and students to write the governor, telling him to restore school aid lost through the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was enacted as a temporary measure to fill the gaping state deficit.
The problem, though, is the state government is suffering from the same economic downturn that has hurt schools and businesses. As just one example, the faltering stock market has cut the return on pension investments, meaning local schools and municipalities have to make up the difference.
The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters — one for perilous and the other for crucial point or pivot.
This fiscal crisis has put New York public education in a perilous place. We must pivot now — quickly and decisively — to save a cornerstone of our democracy.
Two things have to happen — one locally and the other on the state level.
Locally, school workers — from administrators and teachers to bus drivers and custodians — have to accept lower wages. Many businesses in our area have made across-the-board cuts in wages to stay afloat and preserve jobs. Most school contracts involve raises in the form of yearly step increases as well as salary increases on top of that.
If workers were to agree, as the Guilderland teachers recently did, to no raises — less than they would have gotten under the Triborough Amendment by not negotiating a new contract at all — many of the lost programs and services could be reinstated.
The second, statewide change must be to restructure how public education is funded in New York. One citizen told the superintendent last week that having students write the governor is sending them on a fool’s errand. We don’t think that’s so. But the change needs to be much bigger than doing away with the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has said, “There are two education systems in this state — not public and private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”
A decade ago, a group from New York City that saw the inherent unfairness of this, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, sued the state and won. The state’s highest court determined that, according to New York’s constitution, students were entitled to a “sound basic education.” Accordingly, a plan was drafted that would have increased aid across the state while adding aid for the poor districts. As New York found itself in a mounting economic crisis, those plans were redrafted, stretching over more years, and then, finally, scrapped.
This problem of inequity is not a new one. Twenty years ago, the Board of Regents proposed a major reform of the system for distributing state aid. The Regents found that per-pupil spending in districts around the state in 1990-91 ranged from $5,200 to $30,000. The disparity is even greater now.
School districts in poor communities, the Regents found, spend far less per pupil than those in more affluent communities — classes tend to be larger, teachers less experienced, and educational technology less available.
That’s not fair. Every child is entitled to an equal chance at a good education. We are all part of the same society.
For over a quarter of a century, we have on this page urged implementing a statewide income tax to fund education. Our system of property-based school taxes is archaic and should be replaced with a progressive statewide income tax divided among districts on a per-pupil basis.
Currently, state aid to local school districts is determined by a complex system of formulas arrived at piecemeal in a political arena. And, despite its broad use, the school property tax is widely seen as imposing unfair burdens on those who can least afford them.
Local property taxes take up a larger percentage of income for poor people than for wealthy people. And, for those with lower incomes, real property is likely to be the only source of wealth.
Aside from helping the elderly and others on low or fixed incomes continue to live in their homes, an income tax would allow small-scale farmers in our rural areas to continue their operations, maintaining open space for all.
Funding formulas should be decided not on the basis of political realities, but rather on the basis of educational needs.
A statewide income tax should be levied to pay for all state-required educational needs at the elementary and secondary levels. It should be distributed on a per-student basis, evenly, across the state, with adjustments made regionally for varying costs of living. In areas where there are high concentrations of poverty, additional state funds should be shifted to those districts since there are increased educational costs there.
Of course, taxpayers in wealthy districts that wanted to offer their students more could always vote to levy increased local taxes upon themselves to provide the extras their students now receive.
Statewide requirements should be paid for by taxes levied statewide. As it is now, locally elected school boards in districts that aren’t wealthy have very little say on how locally raised taxes are spent. Within the framework of already existing guidelines, school districts could still decide how monies will be spent.
Only when each child is given the same financial backing, backing that will adequately meet all of his or her educational needs, will each student have the same chance to succeed.
Our democracy depends on a well-educated constituency. Before the chasm between the rich and the poor grows too wide to bridge, we need to see that funding for our public schools is fair. We’ll all pay for the consequences.