money matters

Here’s how New York City divvies up school funding — and why critics say the system is flawed

Governor Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s priorities this year, he said recently, is to make sure that needy schools get their fair share of funding. 

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said earlier this month. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

If he really wants to know what New York City does with its school aid, he could start by looking at the city’s “Fair Student Funding” formula.

The city adopted the school-budget system in 2007 as a way to send more money to schools with the neediest students. It replaced a system where funding was tied to teacher salaries, which had advantaged high-performing schools that ended up receiving more money because they attracted more experienced teachers with higher salaries.

But a decade later, the funding formula has not lived up to its promise. Most schools have never received the full amount the formula says they’re owed, while some actually get more than their fair share. And some principals say the formula has had the effect of making veteran teachers hard to afford.

One example: At the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a number of veteran staff members recently qualified for longevity-based raises that added roughly $340,000 to the school’s expenses. Because the formula does not give schools more money when teacher salaries rise, the co-principals had to start charging families for after-school programs and cut a planned teaching position to make ends meet.

“Eventually if all of our teachers keep staying with us,” said co-principal Damon McCord, “we won’t have any money.”  

Now, as Cuomo shines a light on school-funding equity, here’s how the process works (or not) in New York City.

How does New York City divvy up school funding?

The funding formula that New York City adopted in 2007 sets school budgets based on the grades they serve, their type (for instance, whether they are vocational or selective), and their student populations.

Schools receive extra money for students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or are learning English. The idea is that needier students require extra support — and their schools need additional resources — if they’re to catch up with their better-off peers.

The formula also rewards certain selective schools, under the premise that high-achieving students also need extra attention to reach their full potential.

New York City is one of about 30 districts across the country to use this type of weighted funding system, according to the Baltimore Sun. About $6 billion of the New York City education department’s $30.8 billion budget flows through the formula, which is designed to cover schools’ basic expenses — most importantly, teacher salaries.

In addition to allocating more money to educate the neediest schools, the formula was also designed to give principals more power. Under this system, principals can decide whether to devote more of their budgets to seasoned (and costly) teachers, or to hire more junior teachers and spend the savings on an after-school program, for example.

The formula was also meant to impose some order on what was an opaque, freewheeling budget process. In the past, principals haggled with their superintendents for more money, favoring those who could best work the system, according to Eric Nadelstern, a former principal under the old system who was an education department official when the formula was adopted.

“You had massive inequities,” said Nadelstern, now a professor at Teachers College.The difference could amount to thousands of dollars per student, particularly for schools in middle-class neighborhoods and schools in poor neighborhoods.”

What’s wrong the city’s budgeting system?

The Fair Student Funding formula has never quite lived up to its ambitions.

When it was first adopted, city officials wanted to avoid taking money from wealthy schools, so instead they promised to raise poorer schools’ budgets. However, around the same time, the Great Recession hit, causing New York State to roll back planned increases in school aid to districts.

As a result, the formula has never been fully funded — and some poorer schools have never quite caught up to wealthier ones. Last year, only 23 percent of city schools received funding at or above the level to which the formula says they’re entitled, according to numbers provided by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That creates situations like the one inside a school building in Lower Manhattan shared by New Design High School, which serves a very high-needs student population but does not see its full allocation, and the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population but gets more than its fair share.

The dual language school where about 3 percent of students have a disability and 85 percent are poor  received 112 percent of what the Fair Student Funding formula said it was owed last year. By contrast, New Design where nearly 28 percent of students have a disability and 100 percent are poor got just 92 percent of its formula money.

“This whole system is just holding an old, antiquated, unfair system into place,” said Scott Conti, New Design’s principal.

Critics have also questioned the part of the formula that gives extra money to selective schools that enroll higher-achieving students — and which tend to enroll relatively small shares of black and Hispanic students. More than a dozen elite high schools get about $1,000 extra per student through the formula, which has added up to more than $100 million since 2012, according to WNYC.

Others have suggested that the city should spend less on district-wide initiatives, and instead give the money directly to schools to spend. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda devotes millions of dollars to a slew of efforts, including more computer-science classes, advanced courses, and college counseling. Some principals say they would rather the city pour that money into their budgets.

“My preference would be for them to cancel all those programs and give it all to the Fair Student Funding formula,” said a Bronx principal who asked to remain anonymous.

City officials say they are working to increase funding for the formula, and added that Equity and Excellence and other initiatives directly support schools. But they also said the city needs help from the state in order to fully fund the formula.

“By raising the Fair Student Funding floor citywide and making targeted investments through our Equity and Excellence for All agenda, this administration is investing more than ever in all our schools,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen in a statement. “To fully support Fair Student Funding, we need the state to meet its obligation to provide Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding.”  

Sticker shock

In Illinois, child care costs eclipse rent, making it one of least affordable states  

The average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent in Illinois, according to a new report that examines child care costs nationwide.

Illinois is one of the 15 least affordable states in the country, according to the report from the Virginia-based nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. The nonprofit examined costs across the United States and adjusted them for median income and cost of living.

“Families are seeing that child care is a significant portion of the bill they have to pay,” rivaling the cost of college tuition, rent, and even sometimes mortgage payments in some areas of the country, said Dionne Dobbins, senior director of research at Child Care Aware.  

The average annual cost of center-based care for an infant in Illinois has reached $13,474 — which is a staggering 52 percent of the median income of a single-parent family in the state and nearly 15 percent of the state’s median married couple’s income.

That figure put it 13th among the least affordable states, which were ranked by the percentage of a single-parent family’s income spent on child care. Massachusetts topped out at nearly 65 percent of a single-parent family’s median income for center-based infant care.

In Illinois, care for toddlers and older children before and after school also consumed a greater percentage of a family’s income compared with other states. Illinois ranked 14th for toddler care as a percentage of median income, with an average cost of $11,982 for full-time toddler care at a center.

The state was among least affordable for the cost of three months of summer care.

 

Illinois offers a child care subsidy intended to offset the costs of care for low-income working families, but that program has been rocked by shifting eligibility requirements and compliance issues. Participation in the program has dropped by a third since 2015, when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration changed eligibility requirements.

Dobbins said that, across the United States, child care subsidy programs are under pressure as states tighten compliance and lower reimbursement rates. In some states like Illinois, rising minimum wages have rendered some families ineligible for subsidies or staring down co-pays that they can’t afford.

Dobbins said that nationally, only one in six children eligible for subsidized child care actually ends up using it.

 

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.