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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Mon, Jan 10, 2011

School aid equity still a problem in New York state

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Prior to the time of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, New York had been one of only 11 states with laws that expressly forbade school segregation. Our state has long stood for equal treatment of all of its citizens.

In principle.

Principle has not informed practice, unfortunately, when it comes to equitable funding for schools. New York’s education finance system has been the subject of legal battling since at least 1978, when a group of poor school districts challenged the state on the profound inequities that exist in funding its schools (Levittown v. Nyquist). Several cases and many years later — in 2006 — the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s (CFE) position that the state must provide for a “sound basic education” for all of its children, and therefore to fund schools more equitably.

Despite a positive resolution to the CFE case, equity continues to be an issue. Evidence a Rutgers University study published in October that indicated that New York ranks in the bottom five states in the country in how fairly it funds its schools, that is, the gap that exists between how much money they send their poorest schools compared to their wealthiest ones.

In a few weeks, the wrangling will begin over the state budget, and more specifically, state aid to education. The attention is understandable in that the amount of aid received correlates directly with both the quality of education students receive as well as the magnitude of the increase of the most dread and regressive of all taxes: the property tax.

We stand at the precipice of a deep funding cliff. There will be cuts to education aid. That is understood. In this time of declining revenue, citizens need to educate themselves about the vast inequities that exist in the way schools are funded, and to fight for an equitable distribution of aid. When resources are scarce, the fairness with which they are meted out is all the more critical. When there have to be cuts, “across the board” may sound fair, but actually disadvantages disproportionately the already disadvantaged.

The 12 school districts that comprise the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES supervisory are among the poorest in the state. I was born and raised in Herkimer County, and I know how difficult it is to acknowledge that fact. Our school districts have a third to a half the wealth of the average school, and the richest districts in our state have 60 to 90 times more wealth than do ours.

When the state cut aid last year through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA) formula, the cut represented an average of 23 percent of our schools’ tax levies. In other words, schools would have had to raise taxes on its property owners by 23 percent just to stay even. Compare that to a much wealthier downstate county that I will not name. That county’s state aid cut represented only an average of 2 percent of their tax levies. The GEA was mitigated by federal stimulus funds, and our schools made programming cuts to make up the difference.

This year, there will be no federal stimulus, and the state aid cut will likely be deeper that last year. While downstate schools may be able to raise taxes by 2 percent, our schools obviously cannot raise taxes by 23 percent or more. The wealthiest students will do fine, while programs for our students will be drastically cut. When the economy is bad, the rich may not get richer, but the poor certainly get poorer.

Convoluted state aid formulas contain many gimmicks that drive money to wealthy schools at the expense of poor schools. While too involved to detail here, those interested can inform themselves at, the website of the Statewide School Finance Consortium.

Our schools are working hard to save money. Five of our 12 districts are currently involved in merger studies, all 12 have recently participated in a regional transportation study and are also planning for the consolidation of educational services. Nearly half of all payroll and vendor checks written are processed at a BOCES central business office and all of our districts participate in a cooperative purchasing program which saves thousands each year. We look for more savings every day. That is what and should be expected of us.

At the same time, we should expect that New York state not take a “sound basic education” away from our students when other children are afforded the best education money can buy.

Mark Vivacqua is district superintendent for Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES.

Copyright 2011 The Observer-Dispatch, Utica, New York. Some rights reserved

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CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >