After far too many years of talk, but no action, about the need for a change in state funding formulas for aid to education, it now appears that some changes are on the horizon.
It's being brought about by a ruling some six months ago by the state's highest court that said funding for New York City schools failed to meet the state constitutional mandate that all students must be provided with a sound, basic education. The state Court of Appeals in June upheld a lower court's decision, and although the initial ruling applied only to New York City, the court in effect said the state must look at education funding throughout the state.
The Court of Appeals left it to the Legislature to decide who should pay for making the necessary changes to meet the constitutional requirement. The court concurred with the need for more funding and monitoring on how these dollars are spent. The court said the new funding scheme "should ensure a system for accountability to measure whether the reforms actually provide the opportunity for a sound education."
I can't argue at all with the court's ruling, but it unfortunately failed to spell out how its decision could or should be implemented. With the state facing an anticipated deficit of $5 billion or greater, the ability to fund what the court has mandated will set the stage for a royal battle among the political leaders of the state.
Gov. George E. Pataki, to his credit, although he opposed the lower court's original ruling on the education case, now has moved to change the state's school aid formula and give the school districts more flexibility on how to spend the money. "I consider this to be a tremendous opportunity to ensure that no district goes wanting or gets less than it did the previous year," Pataki said.
The governor named a panel to help him make the decisions on reforms called for by the courts. The makeup of the panel has been criticized for not having sufficient input from those involved in the education process, but to date it has made no report and its discussions have not been made public. It will be interesting to see how the panel will deal with the funding problem that will ultimately be determined by the Legislature.
The court gave the state until July 30 to come up with some answers.
Another group, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, is expected to issue a report shortly on what it feels would provide the level of resources needed by the state's 700 school districts. The fiscal equity group has national education experts involved in its considerations. The equity organization initiated the case in the 1970s that led to the court rulings that now have to be implemented.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Regents has come up with its own ideas on how the state should determine school aid totals and how aid should be allocated. The Regents proposal, which for the most part makes good sense, is somewhat complex. In fact, it matters little, since its chances of adoption do not appear at this time to be too good.
The Regents have not come up with any innovative plan for new funding, calling instead for the shifting of current funds targeted for education. Given the political realities, shifting funds just won't do the trick. Somehow, somewhere, new dollars will have to be dedicated to the state's educational system.
The Buffalo Board of Education, of course, has a major stake in how all of this plays out. The Buffalo board has consistently lamented its financial funding from the city and the state and has had to cut instructional staff and support groups in attempts to balance its budget the past few years. Despite these efforts, the ever-increasing costs of pensions and health insurance plus the financing of charter schools has continued to contribute to ongoing deficits.
Any attempts by the State Legislature to limit its response to the courts by dealing only with the New York City problem most assuredly will fail to alleviate the problems in the state's other school districts, particularly in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany. It's been a festering sore for school districts for many years, and it's now the time to face it head on and come up with answers. Failure to do so will only result in more lawsuits and the same response from the courts. The State Constitution demands it.