Buried in the budget, Cuomo proposes controversial change to school funding formula

A funding formula designed to give more money to high-need schools has been altered under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal, to the consternation of several advocacy groups.

The “foundation aid” formula — which the state created in response to a lawsuit claiming that school funding inequities deny students a sound basic education — has been a heated topic for years. Advocates have long argued the state has not fulfilled its promise to help equalize funding for lower-income districts, including New York City. If the formula were fully run this year, for instance, New York City would be due an additional $1.9 billion, they say.

The governor’s controversial proposal would not include a commitment to fully phase in the total funding advocates say is owed statewide, which the State Education Department estimates at about $4.3 billion this year. Some advocates say Cuomo’s changes constitute a “repeal” of foundation aid.

State officials say the characterization is unfair. The full funding owed under the foundation formula was always meant to be a goal, is not legally binding and is not currently realistic, officials from the governor’s office said. Moreover, the governor has allotted a $428 million increase for foundation aid in his budget proposal this year, and there is no indication he will not continue to increase that number in future years, they said.

“Any suggestion that the foundation aid formula has or will be eliminated is a direct attempt to mislead the public and factually untrue,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.

Advocates also say the change could increase uncertainty for districts.

From the language in the budget, it appears that starting next year, the state will use a new formula that could potentially change every year, according to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. The council’s Deputy Director Robert Lowry says that substitutes a transparent decision-making process for one that is more unreliable for school districts. (State officials argued that the budget already changes every year, so districts can never be sure how much aid they will receive.)

Until now, it seemed as if advocates were making headway in obtaining the full funding they say schools should receive. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie suggested establishing a timetable for fully implementing the formula and the state’s Board of Regents suggested a three-year full phase-in.

Some of the changes made to the formula were praised by advocates this year, including Cuomo’s proposal to alter the way the state calculates poverty. But for many, that news was outweighed by this new proposal, which they see as a way for the governor to avoid ever fully phasing in the original foundation aid formula.

“The governor has proposed a Jekyll and Hyde approach to school aid,” stated Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials, “that on one hand makes improvements to the foundation aid formula … and on the other hand eviscerates the foundation aid formula by severing the connection with the full phase-in amount.”