Midstate School Finance Consortium . 01/2002.

Letter to the Governor and Legislature

January 8, 2002

Dear Governor Pataki:

When the State Supreme Court declared New York¹s current school aid formula unconstitutional last year, you said, in appealing that decision, that the courts should not be engaged in the appropriation of public education funds. You said this was [quite properly] a function and responsibility of the Governor and the Legislature.

We wholeheartedly agree with you on this critical point. And yet, we are very worried.

We worry that if the Legislature doesn't take action, the courts eventually will. We are heartened that Judge DeGrasse, in his ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, directed the Legislature to devise a statewide solution to the inequities in the school aid formula. But this must be done now. If a statewide solution is not implemented now, we fear that a subsequent lawsuit in future years could prescribe a much narrower solution benefiting a handful of school districts at the expense of all others.

We believe it¹s far better for you and the State Legislature to seize Judge DeGrasse¹s decision as a window of opportunity to develop your own remedy now ­ one that¹s right for the entire state. The new school aid formula proposed by the Midstate School Finance Consortium can provide a model for you. How?

The Midstate proposal meets all the legal tests set forth in the CFE decision.

It's a true statewide solution to a statewide problem.

The Midstate formula allows you to establish the same funding foundation for every child, regardless of where they live.

It also provides unprecedented equity for taxpayers, while distributing funds in a predictable and understandable manner all across the state.

It permits flexibility for a multi-year "phase-in", allowing you to keep spending under control.

The proposed new school aid formula first developed by the Midstate Consortium in 1997 has always embodied four key principles necessary for any true reform:

1.

There must be fundamental equityŠ an equal starting point for funding every child¹s education no matter where they live in New York State.

2.

Bring real fairness to school taxes. Equalize the tax burden for taxpayers receiving similar services.

3.

School funding must be more predictable. If last year¹s budget mess accomplished anything, it demonstrated forcefully that schools need to plan for more than one year at a time. Effective planning saves taxpayer dollars in the long run.

4.

Make the new method simple, easy to understand and manage by citizens, school boards and school administrators.

No rational argument has yet arisen to dispute or disprove these four principles since we first put them forward nearly five years ago. In fact, the State Supreme Court has agreed, embracing all four in the CFE decision, and adding a fifth ­ accountability ­ of its own. Everyone who considers them thoroughly has always agreed; they unarguably describe the right thing to do, morally, legally and ethically.

The State missed its golden opportunity to reform school aid during the time when revenues were abundantly available over the past few years. We all understand that the world changed dramatically on September 11th. But not everything changed ­ New York still has an unfair, unjust school aid formula. At last it has been declared unconstitutional and the State must accept responsibility for it. Diminished revenues will not eliminate the inequity in school funding we¹ve suffered from for more than 50 years.

And further delay will only increase the ultimate cost of solving this problem. Now, as municipalities and counties are forced to raise taxes locally, the property tax burden ­ aggravated by the current unfair formula ­ becomes even more pronounced. School budgets in the poorest communities will be compromised in ways that seriously hurt children and punish taxpayers.

Unfortunately, during 2001, no progress was made toward reform of the school aid formula. In the absence of such reform, last year¹s budget process inflicted enormous pain and stress on school districts across the state, long after the voters had voted on their local school budgets. As you know, uncertainties and shortfalls ultimately land most heavily upon the beleaguered property taxpayers of New York State.

This isn¹t just about money. The fundamental problem cannot be solved by money alone. In the last 4 years, the state has increased school aid by $3.4 billion, and yet the gap between wealthy and poor school districts has grown ­ it¹s worse than ever.

There will never be a true solution until every single child and taxpayer across the state is treated fairly and equitably. This means comprehensive reform. If the state¹s changed fiscal circumstances dictate not a three-year phase-in as we originally proposed, but a slower phase-in of 4 or 5 years, so be it. But reform must be done.

This is about fairness and equity -- providing every child across the state the same opportunity to get an education. Children all across the state are hurt by the present system, when they are denied educational opportunities because of where they happen to live.

The members of the Midstate Consortium urge you to abandon the State¹s appeal of the CFE decision and instead act this year to reform the school aid formula. No matter how you look at it, the present system is just plain wrong ­ both legally and morally ­ and fixing the school aid formula is simply the right thing to do.

Thank you for taking time to consider our suggestions.

Sincerely,
Brandon Gordon
Director