New York state officials call for $2.1 billion bump in education funding

State officials proposed on Monday a $2.1 billion funding boost for education across New York, largely focusing on increasing dollars to support high-needs school districts.  

The proposal — which still needs the Board of Regents’ final approval on Tuesday —  is about $500 million larger than the request last year, which was shrouded in concerns over a multi-billion-dollar state deficit, a threat of federal spending cuts, and a tax overhaul that could have hurt state revenue.

Monday’s proposal focuses on several of last year’s priorities: increased funding for foundation aid, the formula that sends extra dollars to high-needs districts; improving education for English language learners; and expanding pre-K programs throughout the state.

At the meeting, Regent Judith Johnson raised concerns over how many new initiatives or programs the state Department of Education could realistically shoulder without a promise for additional staffing.

The Educational Conference Board, a coalition of statewide organizations that includes the state teachers union, called for a slightly larger amount, $2.2 billion. Last year, the Regents’ request was $400 million short of what the ECB called for.

Each year, the Regents’ proposal for state aid highlights their priorities for lawmakers, who make the final decision on what will get funded and by how much. Last year, the Assembly approved a budget that increased education funding by $1 billion, still significantly short of what the Regents wanted.

One year later, the political climate in Albany is different. The state education department’s budget request comes right after an election that ushered in Democratic control of the state Senate and new progressive-minded lawmakers who have campaigned on increasing school funding.

State officials, however, dismissed the idea that the election influenced the size of their request.

When asked whether they think state lawmakers will be more receptive to their request this year, Regent and State Aid subcommittee co-chair Beverly L. Oudekirk said, “We can always hope.”

Chancellor Betty Rosa said budget discussions start over the summer and involve conversations with education officials and groups, such as advocates for English language learners, who want to see certain programs or initiatives funded. Many of the funding requests were priorities last year, too, officials said.

“And in reality I don’t think the chairs are thinking even in September, ‘What’s November going to look like?’” Rosa said.

Broken down, $1.66 billion of the state-aid request is for an increase of “foundation aid,” which accounts for a third of the state education funding for New York City. Reflecting a focus on students who are learning English as a new language, about $85 million of this amount would specifically go toward “accelerating” initiatives for English language learners. If the legislature grants any part of this request for students learning English as a new language, the state Department of Education would guide districts on how to use the money.

The foundation aid apportionment grew out of a 13-year lawsuit contending the state’s funding formula was unconstitutional and did not fairly provide for districts that needed the most support.

But even after the formula was established, the state department of education says there is still a funding gap of $4.1 billion. In Monday’s proposal, officials  proposed a three-year phase-in that would increase foundation aid by almost $5 billion dollars, accounting for inflation, by the 2021-2022 school year.

A total of $404 million was requested for reimbursement-based aid for districts, which funnels into support for buildings, transportation, special education, and the consolidation of federal pre-kindergarten programs.

Another $26 million would go toward more universal pre-K programs across the state, most of that to create 4,000 more seats for four-year-olds.

Career and technical education programs would receive a $25 million boost.

Regent Johnson was concerned that the ambitious request — which she applauded — would be too heavy of a lift without more staffing.

“This is not going to roll out the way it’s described,” Johnson said, calling the state education department “woefully understaffed.”

In its request, the state asks lawmakers to fund any new programming with dollars to support staffing for its implementation. But, as is the case for the entire budget request, it’s up to lawmakers to decide how big a staff is necessary.  

“We are one of the agencies that often — we don’t get the resources that are needed to do the best job we can,” Elia said to Johnson. “It is a taxing process. As we get these approvals, I’m telling you right now we are not going to have the staff to do them at the level you want.”

Regent Catherine Collins expressed anger over not seeing specific funding to address suspension rates, saying she was inspired by a Buffalo Daily News article about an Education Trust New York report that found black students in Buffalo are twice as likely as their white peers to be suspended.

In New York City, suspensions continue to stir discussions about school discipline reform. Mayor Bill de Blasio has implemented a set of reforms that have made it tougher to suspend students for certain issues. Under his administration, suspensions have fallen by about 32 percent over nearly five years.

Advocates are now pushing to reduce the maximum length of suspensions.

Elia said that it’s up to local decision makers — such as school boards and superintendents — to determine what portion of state funds, if any, to use to address issues like suspensions.

The New York State United Teachers applauded the proposal.

“We welcome the Regents’ strong, ongoing support for a significant new investment in public education — one that would enable our school districts from Long Island to Buffalo to better meet students’ growing needs,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta in a press release.

In a statement, the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy group, hopes the “new reality in the New York State legislature” will mean more funding for education and urged state lawmakers to heed funding calls from state education officials.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to present his entire budget proposal next month, while legislators will also consider a spending plan during their next session, which starts in January. The deadline to pass a budget is April 1.