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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Thu, Dec 27, 2007

Spitzer's School Aid Reform Is a Success

By Geri D. Palast, Opinion Column, Times Union

As 2007 draws to a close, New Yorkers are trying to make sense of the fortunes of Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The governor entered office with record voter support and high expectations that he would change Albany.

But for the past six months, the business of the state Capitol has been buried under the firestorm generated by Troopergate and the proposal for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Obscured from view is Spitzer's major accomplishment in reforming school funding.
Spitzer broke 12 years of gridlock to create a fair school funding formula and secure a promise in law for an automatic phase-in of substantial annual increases in school aid.

Finally, parents and students who for years have demanded a quality education for every child found hope. This hope is invested in the four-year $7 billion commitment written in the education funding law enacted in 2007.

FACTS:Of this $7 billion, $5.5 billion is foundation aid, distributed based on need, for creating smaller classes, improving teacher quality, expanding after-school programs, tutoring and other classroom reforms. For 55 low performing districts, this funding is directly tied to Contracts for Excellence -- a bold new system of accountability. The remaining funds beyond the foundation aid are for other educational purposes, including expense-based aid for transportation, and BOCES.

As we approach Year 2 of the Spitzer administration, parents look to the governor's budget, even in a tight fiscal situation, as the key to fulfill the promise of reform.

Thanks to the transparent and predictable formula that is in the law, we already know how much money to expect in the proposed budget: $1.25 billion in foundation aid. Expense-based aid will be driven by real costs, and $100 million in additional funds will be needed to fulfill the governor's commitment to universal pre-K by the end of the four years. New York governors have inordinate power in the budgeting process; once Spitzer submits his budget, the Legislature cannot remove the money.

The magnitude of the reform in the new education law has to be understood in the context of changing the culture of Albany. School aid allocation has long been infamous as the most politically manipulated feature of state government.

The funding process was like a rigged game show, with politics guaranteeing that politically connected, wealthy suburban districts would take more than their fair share, shortchanging others, including upstate small cities -- like Albany, Schenectady and Troy -- and rural schools.

During former Gov. George Pataki's 12-year term, his partnership with the Republican state Senate majority was an unbreakable line of defense that kept the unfair school funding system in place even though it guaranteed that hundreds of thousands of school children were left in schools that did not have the resources to adequately educate every child. Pataki and the Senate majority ignored multiple court rulings ordering them to fully fund our schools and resisted strong efforts by the Assembly majority to win needed reform. Spitzer stepped into Albany committed to breaking down the walls of resistance. He won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Assembly.

But the Senate majority proposed and passed the most unfair school aid plan ever conceived in Albany. It offered school aid increases of 95 percent over four years for the wealthiest districts in the state -- more than double what it proposed for middle class and poorer districts. While this plan was stopped, the Senate forced through $120 million in added aid targeted to politically well-heeled school districts.

By proposing a 2008 budget that implements the $1.25 billion in new foundation aid, plus the real cost of education expense-based aid and $100 million new dollars for universal pre-K without delay and with no political pork, Governor Spitzer will secure his legacy as a reformer. Parents and students look forward to Year 2 of Spitzer's term as his budget will prove that New Yorkers can finally count on a state government to make reform stick.

Geri Palast is executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully challenged the state's earlier education funding formula in court.


Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
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 >