Poor NY Schools are Being Shorted

By Lynette Guastaferro and Sharon Rubinstein

How much money gets spent on which kids is roiling New York’s state capital again, with no definitive answers yet.

On January 20th in Albany, there was eager anticipation for what Governor Cuomo would say about education and how to improve the fortunes of school children across New York State. He promised an additional increase of $1.1 billion if his education platform is adopted, but he didn't say anything about how that money should be spread among districts. Instead, he said “Money without reform only grows the bureaucracy.” Maybe, but…

In another Albany chamber that same morning, a court prepared to hear the opening argument in a long-running education finance case, Maisto v. New York, that contends students from poorer communities are getting much less in per pupil spending – several thousands less – than their wealthier peers.

Although the state sends more money to higher need school districts it doesn't make up the gulf created by a blatantly unequal system substantially funded through local property taxes. Furthermore, since the Great Recession New York has dramatically cut education aid, leaving poor districts even more in the lurch. Also compounding the problem, educating poor children costs significantly more for a myriad of well- known reasons.

And it’s not a small number of kids who require more. The most recent statistics show that nearly half of New York State’s public school children, and public school children across the country, qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Poverty is the backdrop for public education

Unlike New York, some states have shown real political will to level the educational playing field for their children and gotten measurable results. In Maryland, a $1.3 billion infusion of funds in 2002 ushered in a years-long period of being at the very top of national standings for K-12 schools. In Michigan, spending reforms of the 1990s resulted in poorer districts gaining ground in student outcomes.

New York cannot boast that kind of record. It has been marked the 42nd worst state in spending inequality among school districts. Furthermore, it is the state with the most segregated schools, according to a 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project study. And dropout rates in poorer locations dwarf those in affluent ones.

We know from first-hand experience what a squeezed budget means. We've seen school leaders who can’t offer critically important interventions to students who need them desperately. We've seen principals struggle to give their teachers needed professional support and supplies. We've seen schools forego updating books. We've even seen students run down hallways not because they’re rambunctious, but because those hallways are taking the place of a gym.

We hope that even as the governor lays out his conditions for increased K-12 funding, he is mindful of the gaps between rich and poor schools that contribute mightily to failures in the system he is so dedicated to fixing.