The racial and economic politics of Albany are robbing New York City’s students of an education. As author and educator Jonathon Kozol commented in Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, the “denial of the ‘means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities; and nowhere is this pattern of denial more explicit or absolute than in the public schools of New York City.” After years of seeing children denied a quality education, teachers, parents, and advocates have successfully sued the state for fair funding for the city’s public schools.
Although critics of equitable funding simplistically complain that “throwing money at the problem won’t solve it,” there is a causal link between funding and educational opportunities. Quite simply, it’s why the suburbs have better public schools. Resources can bring in more qualified teachers and administrators, make smaller class size possible, upgrade deteriorating school buildings and ultimately, affect student learning and achievement.
In early January of this year, New York State Supreme Court Justice DeGrasse agreed with this argument and, in the school funding case Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. vs. State of New York, issued an unequivocal decision: The state’s current funding system was declared unconstitutional. Mandating a reformulation of New York’s arcane and convoluted education budget, DeGrasse’s decision responded to two charges brought against the state by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a consortium of advocacy groups, parent organizations, and community school boards:
that public school students are denied their constitutional right to a “sound basic education,” defined as an education that provides students “with knowledge and skills needed to function productively as citizens and to sustain competitive employment;” and,
that the state’s funding formulas violate federal anti-discrimination laws because of their adverse effects on minority students.
The CFE case was an excellent start because the funding structure for public schools maintains an unequal system that favors the affluent while making poor districts more vulnerable to the latest privatization, “accountability,” and high-stakes testing fads. Additionally, CFE argued that while the state may not have intentionally sought to discriminate, its funding formulas have an “adverse and disparate impact on minority students,” making it time for change. During the trials the defense even helped CFE’s case by ridiculously arguing that the state had no obligation to educate children beyond a simple eighth grade literacy level, contradicting its own years-long systemic educational reform initiatives for new and better standards for learning, including harder graduation requirements.
So how did we get here? It’s not simply bad finance formulas at the state level. The crux of the problem is how public education is funded, which is largely through local property-tax revenues. With their high rates of home ownership, wealthy suburbs are typically able to provide generous support for their schools. By contrast, urban districts are subject to more complex tax structures that generate revenue from rental markets to support a wide variety of municipal services, education included. Added to this difficulty, New York’s system is even more complicated than that of most other large American cities. As a “dependent school district,” the Board of Education cannot levy taxes for its own funding and must rely on the fickle cooperation of the municipal government for support. And this relationship, of course, is far from a cozy affair.
In theory, a state distributes aid that should remedy gaps in the economic divide among districts. But the reality here is different. Some basic facts: New York state’s school finance recipe is a convoluted mass of 48 distinct formulas and grants determined by a set annual increase regardless of actual need. For example, according to the State Education Department, New York City spends approximately $8,170 per student, $1,150 less than the statewide average. In contrast, the average downstate suburb spends $12,600, and in some cases suburban districts have even spent as much as $17,000 per student. This education aid blueprint, which has long gone unchallenged by the state, seems to soothe powerful constituents. In fact, according to the CFE, “the amount of funding allocated to New York City and other districts more often reflects political deals among state officials than educational principles.”
This inequity also reflects long-standing and often divisive urban/suburban tensions in Albany. The city is in a constant fight to get a fair share of funding despite how much it generates for the state in tax revenue. Each year the budget is battled over by the Governor and two legislative leaders. It’s the infamous “three men in a room” approach, and somehow the suburbs always seem to get more. Why? It’s fundamentally about racial politics and who holds power. Over 70 percent of the state’s minority students live and go to schools in New York City, the state’s largest district, and yet they receive the least adequate funding. What will happen when the lily-white demographics of the suburbs change?
Arguing against the needs of NYC public school children as well as the state’s Supreme Court decision, Governor Pataki is appealing the outcome of the CFE case. He is claiming that the current funding formulas are fine and that fiscal adversity is in fact due to the city’s own education budget cuts. While it’s true that public school students and teachers are being hurt by the Giuliani Administration’s enthusiastic barrage of forced cutbacks, the fact remains that New York City already starts with a funding deficit because it educates over 38 percent of the state’s students while only receiving 35 percent of overall school aid. Like other large urban districts, schools here face obscene discrepancies in access to resources and support for teaching and learning—they tend to have the least experienced teachers (14 percent are uncertified versus a state average of only 3 percent) and the oldest physical infrastructures, educate students with the most needs, and are often located in highly segregated neighborhoods overburdened by concentrated poverty.
Worse yet, Governor Pataki and the legislature did not agree on a budget this year. Instead of staying in session to compromise on spending items, particularly educational funding, they handed down an austerity budget (a harsh and meager allotment put in place to sustain basic municipal operations until an agreed-upon version is passed). The dispute in Albany over the budget is causing so much chaos that schools around the state have taken drastic measures in response, including delaying the start of school, cutting staff in core curriculum areas such as math and English as second language, dismissing guidance counselors, and ending after school programs. Additionally, ongoing battles between Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy and the city have led to even deeper cuts—$150 million. The result of political gridlock in which NYC public education loses out to the state, the city and the Board of Education, this “significant shortfall” cripples schools and children at the outset of a new school year.
With New York now added to the roster of over 28 states under court order to equalize funding across school districts, the austerity budget seems coincidentally vindictive. Is Albany reasserting the power-base of upstate suburban politicians over the educational needs of the city’s public system? It appears so. But the CFE charges are so irrefutable that even the New York State Assembly members have asked the Governor to immediately enter negotiations to create a legitimate education aid formula and replace what CFE describes as the “historically inequitable one that denies millions of public school students their constitutional right to a sound basic education.” As of the first week of September, Albany was back at budget negotiations.
As long as public schools are funded with confusing and politicized formulas, it is unlikely there will ever be access to quality education for all students. Illuminating the social implications of the case, Justice DeGrasse eloquently wrote in his decision what we should all know: “Demography is not destiny. The amount of melanin in a student’s skin, the home country of her antecedents, the amount of money in the family bank account are not the inexorable determinants of academic success. All children are capable of seizing the opportunity of a sound basic education if they are given sufficient resources.”
MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.Julie Callahan