Amid $6B shortfall, Cuomo pitches smaller increase in education spending, new funding formula

As the state stares down a massive budget shortfall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed increasing school funding by $826 million next fiscal year.

His proposed spending increase is less than half of what the state’s education policymakers and advocacy groups have called for. It also fell $175 million short of the year-over-year increase the governor suggested last year. 

Cuomo, who is proposing a total of $28.5 billion in state education funding, said his plan would boost education spending to its highest-ever levels. About $11.5 billion of that would go to New York City schools, about 2% more than what the city currently gets. Despite the expected $6 billion shortfall, Cuomo proposed a 3% spending increase for both education and Medicaid. (The governor is relying on additional tax revenue and other measures to help close the shortfall.)

“I don’t believe any New Yorker would want to choose between healthcare and education, and I don’t think our government should choose,” said Cuomo, who also proposed changing the education funding formula in order to ensure more money goes to high-need schools. 

Buried in budget documents released late Tuesday was a proposal to make room for more charter schools in New York City. In 2015, the state set a limit on how many charter schools could open in New York City in the years ahead: 50. Authorizers hit that cap last year. But the total number of charters available has actually been slightly higher, since a 2017 deal allowed authorizers to reissue 22 charters originally issued to schools that closed before July 2015.

This week, Cuomo proposed expanding that number, offering a new pathway to open charters as state lawmakers show no signs of wanting to increase the charter cap. His plan would allow authorizers to re-issue as many abandoned or leftover charters as they have available, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many that amounted to.

For another year, the governor’s budget wishlist sets up a battle with state lawmakers, education-focused organizations, and city education officials who have been pushing the legislature to spend more on Foundation Aid, the existing formula that sends more state dollars to districts with high shares of needy students. The current formula, they contend, has never been fulfilled to the level promised when it was first created in 2007. 

And this year’s budget address comes as some lawmakers are discussing ways to update outdated portions of the Foundation Aid formula — a discussion that has also drawn criticism from education advocates. 

Cuomo is proposing an increase of $704 million in Foundation Aid spending, a fraction of the nearly $2 billion increase state education policymakers have called for. In a statement, Chancellor Betty Rosa and Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe applauded the governor for pitching certain investments, including for pre-K, but signaled disagreement at his proposed changes to Foundation Aid, which he has pressed for during multiple legislative sessions. 

“While we agree that additional funding for high-need districts should be a priority, we need to ensure all districts have adequate resources to provide every child in New York State with a high-quality education,” Rosa and Tahoe said in the statement. 

Almost immediately, the governor’s pitch drew ire from education organizations. Jasmine Gripper, the executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, issued a statement claiming that Cuomo “talked out both sides of his mouth.” 

“He first said that the Foundation Aid formula is the best way to drive funding to the neediest students, but then asserted that we need to throw it out and start again with a new formula,”  said Gripper, whose group is focused on boosting Foundation Aid dollars. “We’re tired of Governor Cuomo’s contradictions. Black, Brown and low-income children have been waiting for equity for the past nine years that Andrew Cuomo has been the governor of New York State.”

The state teachers union has joined other organizations in calling for $2.1 billion more in Foundation Aid. In a statement, president Andy Pallotta suggested “billionaires and ultra-millionaires” should help foot the bill for state services, such as education spending.

“Educational inequality is the most pressing issue of our time because the state is billions of dollars behind on Foundation Aid funding for roughly 400 school districts statewide,” Pallotta said in a statement. 

In his speech, Cuomo once again asserted that districts across the state are still not delivering dollars equitably to the schools that need it the most — the same argument that drove his failed proposal last year to change the funding formula. 

Cuomo’s assertion is not the case in New York City. That’s in part because the city’s own school funding formula is designed to send more dollars to schools serving high-needs students, such as those with disabilities, though educators and advocates say it still falls short of what the schools need to support such students, who may not attend schools with powerhouse parent fundraising groups. 

The governor’s proposal this year focused on certain expenses not directly related to instruction, such as building aid, hardware and technology, and transportation — costs that school districts are reimbursed for based on the number of students in a district and a district’s overall wealth. An overview of the governor’s proposed budget, available online, noted that just half of the money for such expense-based aid goes to high-needs districts. 

Cuomo wants 10 of these expense-based aid categories to be folded into Foundation Aid, in order to ensure the money goes to the schools that need it most. No further details were available in the budget book available online. 

He likened the current way schools are reimbursed for expense based-aid as the state “paying the credit card bill” at the end of the year for costs that individual schools rack up. Schools receive money for these expenses from their districts, which receive certain reimbursements after they’re approved by state education officials.

“We need a new formula and it’s not going to be easy and matter of fact it is going to be hard, but that’s what has to be done,” Cuomo said. 

David Friedfel, director of state studies for Citizens’ Budget Commission, said he understands Cuomo wants to examine expense-based aids, and that it “makes sense” for the governor to target school aid for the neediest districts as the state faces a budget gap. 

Several of the expense-based categories currently don’t account for a district’s ability to cover costs, such as library materials, on its own, Friedfel noted.

Still, such a move could be a problem for school districts since the total amount of Foundation Aid for school districts can change annually, said Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents. He noted that the intricacies of the governor’s proposal are still unclear. 

“District officials have some ability to forecast future aid levels for these formulas, but they cannot predict what Foundation Aid will be from one year to the next,” Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of Superintendents, said in a statement. 

The governor touched on the longstanding, unwritten rule of providing 38% of school aid to the city — an example he used to highlight how outdated the formula is. 

The budget for the next fiscal year goes into effect in April.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the new fiscal year starts in June.