By Timothy G. Kremer
In his budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo served up some bold new initiatives for schools – such as full-day prekindergarten and extended learning time. He also created a one-time stimulus package of $203 million.
I admire the governor for being bold and innovative. But the trend has been an erosion of educational opportunities for students, hurting their ability to compete for admission into their desired colleges and career paths.
As lawmakers work to meet the April 1 budget deadline, here are five ways they can help school districts provide a quality education to every student.
• Distribute state aid to schools equitably. On average, the governor’s budget provides greater aid increases to poorer school districts, a laudable goal. We need to ensure that state aid is based on accurate data, so that poor districts are not actually perceived as wealthy.
• Do no harm. Under the governor’s budget, nearly a quarter of districts receive a reduction in overall aid. The average cut is about $258,000, or 2.4 percent. The decrease in aid will wreak havoc on budgets, as board members struggle to maintain programs without escalating property taxes. At the least, lawmakers should restore aid to districts receiving a cut under the governor’s plan. Better yet, they should remove all schools from the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) – a fancy term for cutting state aid to schools. The GEA – and its ugly forerunner, the Deficit Reduction Assessment – has taken $8.4 billion from New York schools since 2009.
• Provide more stability in state aid. Two years ago, state leaders adopted a cap that limits year-to-year increases to the rate of personal income growth. But that process leaves districts guessing about their state aid. This year, for example, initial forecasts predicted a nearly 4.7 percent aid increase. Yet that estimate has dropped to 3 percent. The changes reduced the projected increase for next year from $950 million to $610 million – a drop of $340 million. The unpredictability can lead school districts to draw more on reserves and eliminate instructional programs. Instead, lawmakers should put in place a 10-year average of personal income growth in calculating the state aid cap.
• Redirect competitive grants to basic operating aid. The governor proposes a hefty $125 million in competitive grants for programs ranging from extended learning time to community schools. But with schools cutting music, art, sports and Advanced Placement programs, that funding is better directed toward basic operating aid.
• Let school districts form regional secondary schools. Regional high schools are a good alternative for communities with declining enrollment.
If the governor and lawmakers adopt these reforms, schools will be much better off – and so will our communities.
Timothy G. Kremer is executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.