It is impossible not to feel the pangs of New York’s school districts as they cope once again with the prospect of reduced levels of state aid, a byproduct of the Great Recession whose aftereffects linger. The so-called “gap elimination adjustment” is, as the superintendent of the Depew Union Free School District observed, a nice term that really means the state is balancing its budget in part by sending less money to the state’s schools. There’s no disputing that.
The problem is that there is another side to the story and, as painful as the school districts’ plight is, it undergirds a more persuasive argument, namely that New Yorkers already pay more per student than residents of any other state for results that are largely middling. It’s true that the relatively small increases in state aid to education are putting some programs – and jobs – at risk, but it’s also true that spending even more is unlikely to make the schools notably better than they have been all along.
What is more, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo noted in a meeting with The News editorial board, what the schools really want is to return to the high point of their funding, from five years ago.
“Everybody in the world wants to go back to the high point before the recession,” he said. “I want my house to go back to the high point. I want my bank account to go back to the high point.”
No doubt the schools will get more than the governor has proposed, because they always do. That’s the system. Governors propose X, legislators demand Y and they compromise on X½. It’s the annual dance, but continuing it without acknowledging the fundamental problem won’t get to the heart of the matter.
Ultimately, the entire funding system needs to be re-engineered – taken apart and restructured in a way that emphasizes results, accountability and an appropriate balance between New Yorkers’ clear interests in paying teachers well while also respecting taxpayers’ bank accounts and protecting the state’s economy.
That’s a tall order in any state, but especially so in this one, where legislators cheerfully submit to union domination and where state labor law makes it almost impossible to win concessions at the bargaining table. Nevertheless, if New Yorkers are going to produce an education system that works and is affordable, those issues will have to be dealt with first. That means changes in the Taylor Law, which regulates public sector labor contracts, and the Triborough Amendment, which makes it in unions’ interest not to bargain at all when times are tough.
The prospects for such reforms are probably better than they have been in years but still not especially likely. Cuomo has shown – repeatedly – that he doesn’t mind shaking things up and he’s not afraid of crossing the unions, including the teachers unions, which despise evaluations such as Cuomo pushed into law. But it’s a fiercely complicated undertaking and lawmakers of both parties, but especially Democrats, have neither the stomach nor the interest in what would be a bloody political fight.
Someday, though, it will have to happen. The costs and funding of education in New York are no less dysfunctional than the rest of state government has been for years. Cuomo has made strides in fixing some of Albany’s problems, but repairing this one would require everyone to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The problem is, it’s easier just to walk around it – and easy is what Albany does best.