New York City’s school budget cuts have taken center stage.
Parents have cast Mayor Eric Adams as a villain, trailing him around the city protesting budget reductions to their schools. A chorus of City Council members have apologized for overwhelmingly approving the city’s budget, which included hundreds of millions in cuts to public schools. In a new twist, a Manhattan judge seemed poised to invalidate the current budget and force the City Council to take up a new vote on it.
The Adams administration has argued that school budget reductions are a necessary response to declining enrollment and avoid an even bigger budget cliff when federal COVID relief runs dry in two years. But educators and parents argue that students are hurting right now and need as much help as possible. They point out that there is enough federal funding to avoid the cuts.
The intense pushback has prompted Adams to take the unusual step of returning to the table with the City Council after the budget was passed. Negotiations to potentially avert hundreds of millions in cuts to the city’s schools have not yet yielded a formal deal, though city officials have begun freeing up money once restricted to academic recovery programs to cover teaching positions.
Adams is facing a choice: Should he stick to his initial budget and allow the cuts to go through, or should he relent to the pressure and restore funding?
The decision is more complicated than meets the eye, and either choice involves some trade-offs.
“I can see both sides,” said Sarita Subramanian, the assistant director of education at the Independent Budget Office. “At some point that will be a large hole to fill,” she said. “But on the other end of the spectrum, we are still in a pandemic.”
The case against the cuts
The argument against cutting school budgets is straightforward: The pandemic has continued to cause severe disruptions to student learning, and reducing the budgets of most city schools will hobble their efforts to help students address interrupted learning and deep mental health needs.
The city expects to cut Fair Student Funding, the formula that governs the bulk of school budgets, to the tune of about $215 million next school year, though the city’s Comptroller, Brad Lander, argues the true figure is nearly $373 million. (City Hall did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.) Nearly three-quarters of city schools are facing cuts, with an average reduction of 8%, Lander’s analysis found.
The budget reductions have already led to the elimination of teacher positions as well as cuts to art, music, and other enrichment programs at some schools. Class sizes may swell in some cases, as schools may merge classrooms if they lose funding for a teaching position but not an entire classroom’s worth of students.
Advocates argue that the $7 billion in federal relief funding earmarked for the city’s schools was meant to help avoid those types of reductions, and there appears to be plenty of it left. The education department has nearly $506 million in relief funding that wasn’t spent last year alone, according to Lander, more than enough to make up for next year’s school budget cuts.
“We have so much evidence that kids have not recovered, so it isn’t business as usual at all,” said Leanna Stiefel, a professor at New York University who said holding off on budget cuts could buy time to see if enrollment stabilizes. “This year seems like not the year to do such a big reckoning.”
The mayor’s case for the cuts
The Adams administration’s case for the budget cuts boils down to a simple math problem: fewer students equals fewer dollars.
Before the pandemic, school funding fluctuated up or down based on enrollment, as the Fair Student Funding formula is based on student headcount. But the previous administration used federal stimulus money to keep school budgets steady, as policymakers argued schools needed every possible dollar to address interrupted learning.
The result is that school budgets have not been significantly adjusted, even though there are roughly 9% fewer students in the city’s public schools since the pandemic hit (excluding charters). On top of that, city officials are projecting an enrollment drop of 30,000 students next school year, a 3.7% decline.
Without phasing in cuts now, the city will hurtle over a fiscal cliff in two years that will require even more “dramatic” reductions, schools Chancellor David Banks warned in June. “Our stimulus funding is running out, so we made a decision to begin the process of weaning the schools off of the stimulus funding,” he said.
Cutting school budgets to account for several years worth of enrollment declines all at once could lead to severe reductions in teacher positions and other programs. And if making cuts now is generating intense backlash, it may be even more politically challenging to make them later on when the effects will be more severe.
Keeping budgets steady could also lead to unintended consequences, as enrollment declines are not spread evenly. Funding schools regardless of how many students they serve will lead to greater per-student spending at schools with significant declines at the expense of schools with more modest losses or even enrollment gains. There is some evidence that such a policy may favor a small number of schools that serve few low-income students.
“If you hold everyone harmless you create inequities across the system,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, an economics professor at Syracuse University. “That’s what the ‘hold harmless’ approach takes you to. I’m not opposed to spending money, I’m opposed to whether this is the best strategy.”
Other ways forward
Multiple experts said there are potentially fairer ways of distributing funding than simply keeping all school budgets steady regardless of how many students are enrolled.
One option is to adjust the Fair Student Funding formula, which offers a baseline amount of funding for every student a school enrolls, but provides even more for high-need students, including those with disabilities, learning English, or living in poverty.
If the city’s goal is to make more resources available to the students hit hardest by the pandemic, officials could increase the weights for students in high-need categories, experts said. That would have the effect of boosting the budgets of schools that serve higher shares of vulnerable students. (The city has convened a task force to look into tweaking the funding formula.)
“The smartest thing to do with this funding would be to use it in a compensatory way for students in schools that were hardest hit by the pandemic,” said Sarah Cohodes, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University.
Another option is to use the funding to invest in targeted tutoring programs, after-school enrichment, or even a longer school day. City officials have indicated that they plan to fund academic recovery programs, including tutoring, but have offered few details about how they will operate or how many students they expect will benefit.
Still, Cohodes and other experts generally said keeping budgets steady could be a reasonable approach even if it is not the most perfectly targeted.
Holding off cuts for now — or slowly phasing them in, as the city is planning — could give officials time to plan and involve communities in discussions about how to grapple with enrollment declines, said Schwartz, the Syracuse professor. One looming dilemma, for instance, is how to tackle a growing number of very small schools, as more than one in five of the city’s elementary schools now have fewer than 300 students and will require much more per-student funding to run than larger schools.
“Should we be closing schools? Should we be taking two elementary schools that are smaller than they should be and combining them?” Schwartz said. “We ought to be thinking about: What does a smaller system look like?”
Kae Petrin contributed data analysis
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.