Midstate School Finance Consortium . 07/2004.

MSFC Op/Ed: In Albany why is the obvious so hard to see?

By Brandon Gordon, Executive Director, Midstate School Finance Consortium

To most people, it came as no surprise when for the 20th year in a row, New York State's dysfunctional political system failed to produce a budget on time.

This year's stumbling block appears to be the Governor's and Legislature's inability to agree on a plan to fix the state's inequitable and unfair school aid formula in time to meet a looming court-ordered deadline.

You probably know the state lost its case in something called "the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit". Both the State Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals found that our state's school aid formula has for many years shortchanged the children of New York City by persistently underfunding the City's schools. As a result, New York City schoolkids are denied the opportunity for a "sound basic education".

The court ordered the State to fix it, period, and requires Albany to submit its plan by July 30.

None of this should have come as any surprise either. Poorer school districts all over the state - big city, small city, suburban and rural schools - have long suffered just like New York City. The current school aid formula shortchanges hundreds of school districts all over the state, especially those with large concentrations of students living in poverty and those in communities that have below average property wealth.

To add insult to injury, the current formula often forces property taxpayers in less wealthy areas with inadequately funded schools... to pay higher school tax rates!

While it's painfully obvious to anyone who's ever compared schools in both wealthy and poorer communities, this infuriating situation remained "invisible" to Albany politicians until the recent CFE court decision left them no alternative.

It's not like Albany political leaders couldn't see all this coming. The school aid formula has been broken for decades. During the 1990s, school aid increased dramatically. And guess what? The gap between wealthy and poor school districts got worse... the richer communities got more money and the poor got poorer. This statewide pattern was well-documented in a report first made public by The Midstate School Finance Consortium in 1997.

So how has Albany responded? In one Albany reporter's colorful words: "this issue (the court decision) fell into lawmakers' laps 11 months ago and they've done diddly-squat so far."

It's not so hard to figure out how to fix what's wrong with the present formula, either.

Since 1998, the Midstate Consortium has advocated a simple, straightforward, easy-to-understand alternative formula, based on four core principles:

1.

Treat every child in the state the same way, regardless of where they live

2.

Treat every property taxpayer the same way, regardless of where they live

3.

Make it predictable - so school districts can plan their budgets from year to year, and

4.

Make it transparent - easy to understand by anyone.

Everyone who has ever examined these four core principles has embraced them, realizing they address everything that's wrong with the current formula.

In fact, most of the alternative proposals that have emerged in the last 11 months follow or adhere to these four principles first included in the Midstate Consortium proposal way back in 1998.

It's obvious that a complete reform of the current formula - a statewide solution - is the only coherent, fair approach. Well, maybe not obvious to everybody. So far, the three most powerful men in New York State and our own legislators have failed to work together in the true interest of the people who actually elect them.

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Bruno seemingly threw up his hands and remarked that the Senate "may have to just leave it up to the Court to decide how to fix the broken school aid system".

Nothing could be worse for Upstate New York. The Court is constrained to a "New York City-only" solution that will result in school children in all of the poorer areas of the state continuing to be shortchanged for years and years to come.

Countless more lawsuits will be launched by school districts across the state, consuming even more taxpayer dollars, all to force the state live up to its own Constitution and treat every child the same way, regardless of where they live.

Yes, in Albany, the obvious seems to be invisible.

To Governor Pataki, Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno, we say: With less than two months remaining before the Court deadline, we strongly urge you to stop this senseless maneuvering over political and personal interests and do the right thing.

A solution is obvious. Just take another look at the formula proposed by the Midstate Consortium, and use it as the basic framework for your own plan. The state's fiscal crisis is no excuse for inaction; this plan can easily be phased-in over several years, making it both effective and affordable.

But at least get started. Take control of the process and ensure that no children and no taxpayers - no matter where they live - are treated unfairly from now on.

Contact Your State Representatives: Urge Them to Reform School Aid Before July 30, 2004.

To contact the Governor: http://www.state.ny.us (Click on Governor Pataki link in upper left corner)

To contact your Assemblyperson: http://www.assembly.state.ny.us/

To contact your Senator: http://www.senate.state.ny.us/