OPINION EDITORIAL from THE MIDSTATE SCHOOL FINANCE CONSORTIUM

Brandon Gordon, Executive Director


January 12, 2004



MIDSTATE SCHOOL FINANCE CONSORTIUM URGES GOVERNOR PATAKI TO “STICK TO PRINCIPLES” TO REFORM STATE FUNDING FOR SCHOOLS



In 2001, Governor Pataki called our school finance system “a dinosaur” and said “we should scrap it altogether and create a new school aid formula that is fair, simple and sustainable.”


We applauded him then, and applaud him again for repeating those words during his recent 2004 State of the State Address.


For nearly a decade, the Midstate School Finance Consortium, representing nearly 270 school districts in 30 counties, has tirelessly advocated total reform of the state’s current method of paying for schools. We are among leaders in a statewide chorus calling for the current system to be “thrown away.”  


In 1995, we first put forth core principles to guide reform. Since then, they’ve been widely embraced by nearly everyone who has grappled with the school aid issue. These principles also align closely with the requirements set by the State Court of Appeals in the CFE lawsuit.


To accomplish true reform, any new school aid formula must do five things:


Treat every child the same regardless of where they live, by funding the same “starting point” for their education. This is the only way to achieve equity – true fairness.

Treat every property taxpayer the same regardless of where they live.

Be transparent – clear and simple enough so citizens and school administrators can understand how school aid is distributed.

Be predictable from year to year, so that schools can manage their finances better.

Rely less on property taxes to fund schools.


The Governor’s words in 2001 and last week seemed to embrace most of these principles, and we hope he doesn’t back away from a solution that ensures that every child in New York is provided the opportunity for a meaningful high school education.    


To this end, he said, “our new education finance system must appropriately focus resources… on New York City and our other high need school districts….” However, how one defines a "high need" district greatly affects any solution on school funding. While the needs of New York City and other large, urban districts like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo are well known, the plight of poor, rural districts like those prevalent Upstate has received much less attention.


In Upstate New York, the school funding problem is perhaps as much a property tax problem as it is an equity problem. The Upstate economy is struggling, and has been for a long time. Among the significant factors hurting our troubled economy is the property tax burden, clearly among the worst in the country.


Unlike the rest of the nation, local property taxpayers in New York pay the largest share of the state’s education costs. In 35 other states, the state – not the local property taxpayer – pays the majority of the cost of children’s education. In fact, the state of New York lags well below the national average in the percentage of each child’s education it funds. At the same time, our state education standards are the highest in the nation. This is a major reason our property tax rates [especially in many Upstate communities] are among the highest in the nation.


It is not only the great disparity in property tax burden that is cause for the current system to be “thrown away,” but the equally dramatic disparity between what educational opportunities are available to students in poor school districts and wealthy ones.  Urban or rural – it makes no difference - the range of academic options is much more limited in low-wealth schools.  


In recognizing this, our State leaders must all, as the Governor directed, “champion change that will provide the education every New York child deserves.”  Because many school children in our state, not only in NYC, are hurt by the unconstitutional funding system now in place, the only conceivable, truly fair solution is to fix it for everyone.

  

This is why, as they search for solutions, we urge Governor Pataki and his Commission on Education Reform to stick to the most important principles of all: every child and every taxpayer must be treated the same, regardless of where they live.


The state’s current fiscal problems are simply no excuse to delay reform. All resources invested in our public schools must be spent equitably and justly.


It’s the right thing to do, legally and morally.