There are tough times, and then there are tough times. If you want to see the difference, take a look at how affluent suburban school districts are being affected by the state's fiscal troubles, and then check out the impact on poor urban districts like Buffalo.
School tax rates will be going up in many -- if not most -- suburban districts, and there may be some cutbacks. But it might take a trained eye to notice. There still will be extracurricular activities like music and interscholastic sports.
In the city, it's a different story. The changes caused by underfunding will be about as subtle as before-and-after pictures of downtown Baghdad. It is just one more example of the flawed and morally offensive funding system in this state that enables children from wealthier districts to have access to superior educational resources.
The Legislature recently restored much of the aid to education that Gov. George Pataki cut from his budget proposal. That money lowered the Buffalo School District's budget gap from $68 million to between $38 million and $45 million. The increase will save prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs. It is an appropriate use of the money.
But the district's budget shortfall likely will leave many city kids without interscholastic sports and other extracurricular activities like instrumental music and extra help to meet Regents graduation requirements.
For some students, the extra help to pass their Regents exams could be the difference between graduation and dropping out. For others, interscholastic sports is a ticket to a better education in the form of college scholarships. Granted, not every kid is going to be good enough to win a scholarship. But even for the majority who simply play on varsity teams, they learn the discipline and social skills that are as much a part of education as academic pursuits.
Suburban districts have the authority to raise taxes when they need more money to run their schools at the level they believe is appropriate. It's a prerogative they use with distressing regularity. In fact, despite record increases in state aid over the past five years, school tax rates for districts outside of New York City have significantly outpaced inflation over that same time span, according to state figures. That makes the cries of despair coming from suburban districts over a cut in aid this year a bit hard to take. One would think school districts could manage one off-year after five consecutive years of state aid increases that outpaced inflation.
It's a different story for a poor urban district like Buffalo, which can't raise taxes to pay for the educational needs of its students, and gets a smaller share of aid increases than wealthier districts. The Legislature helped the short-term problem for Buffalo by restoring money the governor had deleted. But, as usual, it treated the symptoms and not the cause of the problem, which is the school aid formula that enables the rich to get richer while the poor lag ever further behind.
It may be that the governor and Legislature will be forced to do the right thing. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, is considering a lawsuit filed against the state by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The group is asking the court to order a new aid formula based on the financial need of schools.
Still, the governor and Legislature shouldn't need a court decision to see how inequitable the current system is. New York State claims to have high hopes for its students. There should not be a caveat attached to that that says it has high hopes only for its wealthier students.