One of the thorniest education battles in New York State is, of course, over money — whether the state still owes billions of dollars to New York City and the other school districts through foundation aid, the state formula that directs extra dollars to high needs districts.

But now, some lawmakers want to dig into another longstanding question: Does the formula itself need updating? 

To answer that, Senate Education Chair Sen. Shelley Mayer will be hosting a series of roundtables across the state, including one in Queens next month, plus a December public hearing in Manhattan.

The foundation aid formula was created in 2007 after a lengthy legal battle that found the state was not providing a “sound basic education” for its students. A dozen years later, advocates, lawmakers, and policymakers contend the state has yet to provide at least $4 billion in funding to districts across New York — a stream of money that was halted after the Great Recession set in just a year after the formula was decided on, then slowly increased after the economy improved. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has consistently pushed back, saying the lawsuit has been long settled and the state has been funding its fair share. 

During the roundtables, Mayer wants to ask researchers and education observers across the state whether the formula is equitable: Does it properly account for student poverty? Does it truly account for the needs of English language learners? But some say this conversation is just distracting from the issue of providing districts with enough money to function in the first place. 

“This is not a new conversation,” noted Mayer, who represents Yonkers and other parts of Westchester. “It’s just, there hasn’t been a real re-examination at a grassroots level and that’s what we are seeking to start here.” 

We broke down what this argument is about.

So, what exactly is foundation aid?

Districts across the state fund their schools using local, state, and federal dollars. The state portion is a big part of that, with a majority of it from foundation aid. 

This year, about a third of New York City schools’ $34 billion budget is composed of state dollars.

This formula replaced about 30 other aid formulas and programs, and was born in 2007 after a 13-year-long lawsuit that alleged the state’s funding structure was unconstitutional because it wasn’t providing a “sound basic education.” 

In the years since, the formula has been tweaked annually to account for districts’ changing demographics and how much the state was inclined to give. But the total amount that the 2007 formula called for has never been fully funded, advocates and policymakers say. 

The formula is designed to place extra weight on how students of different needs in a district may require more resources. It starts with the average cost to the state per student in a “successful” or well-performing district. 

Last year that was set to $6,557. 

That number is then altered for each district by several factors, including needs per student — a measure that accounts for needs such as poverty and students learning English as a new language. Labor costs and how much a district could, in theory, contribute on its own are also factored in. 

Albany is renewing its focus on foundation aid as the Democratic majority vowed to deliver changes.

Last legislative session, the state’s newly minted Democratic majority vowed to follow through on campaign promises to boost education funding through foundation aid. But to the disappointment of advocates, such as the Alliance for Quality Education, the group that backed the 2007 lawsuit against the state, the funding increase remained static from the year before. 

Even though boosting funding is likely to remain a big political priority, the focus could shift from the amount of foundation aid to what the foundation aid formula itself looks like. 

“The formula is what, over 10 years old?” Regent Judith Johnson said at a Board of Regents meeting on Monday during a conversation about budget and legislative priorities. “I would suggest that whatever we arrive at as a set of conclusions, that going forward we admit — in writing — that this formula needs to be reviewed every 10 years,” added Johnson, who represents Westchester and neighboring counties.

As the conversation about the formula takes shape, we could hear a lot about how student needs and other costs are weighed.

Student poverty is measured, in part, using data from the 2000 U.S. Census instead of the most recent one conducted in 2010, according to state education documents posted online. That was one of the formula’s “weird” quirks noticed by Philip Gigliotti, a doctoral candidate at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at SUNY Albany, while he was researching school funding in New York state a couple years ago.

But in order for that to be a problem, “you would need poverty to be changing very quickly in those districts or rapidly increasing,” Giglioti said. 

The formula also accounts for labor costs using 13-year-old figures, which some say should be updated. 

Another issue is reexamining whether, as learning standards change, the formula still properly weighs the costs of educating students with disabilities and students learning English as a new language. 

Since 2007, there have been new ideas on the best ways to teach children, said Erica Vladimer, a former education policy analyst with the city’s Independent Budget Office, who is now running for Congress in the 12th District, which spans Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Vladimer, who studied the foundation aid formula, said it’s important to consider how those changed learning standards and teachers “championing educating the whole child and community school programs” have changed the definition of what it means to provide today’s New York student with a “sound basic education.”

And should the state add other student needs, Vladimer asked? For example, should the formula account for students living in temporary housing?

Some advocates who have fiercely pushed for the state to boost foundation aid are wary of the conversation pivoting to the formula.

Based on its age, it could use some tweaks, said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director and soon-to-be executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education, perhaps the most prominent group advocating for foundation-aid funding. But the real issue, Gripper said, is to fund districts with that $4 billion owed by the state under the 2007 ruling. 

“We don’t want there to be an excuse or scapegoat as a way of getting around the issue, which is underfunding,” Gripper said.

On Monday, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said the formula “probably at this point does need to be revisited and reexamined,” but that on its own doesn’t address all issues — such as how individual districts are prioritizing their money or spreading their money among schools. That’s a concern shared by Cuomo, whose idea to create a new funding formula last session fell flat. Rosa wasn’t suggesting a new formula, but that tweaking the formula alone isn’t the answer.

“If we only concentrate on the formula as a distraction, we’re not going to end up addressing some of the major issues that we have to grapple with as a board and a department that needs to look at this equity issue in a deeper and broader way,” Rosa said. 

It’s hard to tell this early on how any change could affect New York City. 

Since most of the state dollars that go to the city come from foundation aid, any change to the formula could impact the school system’s finances — especially if there are changes to how needs of specific students are addressed. 

A heavier weight on student poverty, for example, could mean more money for city schools if there hasn’t been a significant drop of students from low-income families since the formula was first established. 

“I think it might be more of a wait-and-see to see what happens in New York City because it depends on what they’re going to focus on and how they’re going to change them,” Vladimer said. “I don’t want to completely speculate; I will be surprised if we see significant reduction in state support for New York City because districts heavily rely on state support.” 

When are the New York City meetings?

The New York City roundtable meeting will be on Nov.19 at Bayside High School in Queens, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A formal public hearing over this issue is also scheduled in New York City, at 250 Broadway in Manhattan at 10 a.m. on Dec. 3. 

Both meetings are open to the public, but only those who are invited can participate and speak at the roundtable event. Anyone can testify during the public hearing but must complete a form to do that. There’s more information here.