Six months after the state's highest court ordered a plan to reform state education funding for New York City public schools by July 30, 2004, state leaders have promised a statewide program, but local lawmakers are still wondering where the money will come from.
In his annual State of the State address this month, Gov. George Pataki pledged that the education finance system for the whole state would be thrown out and replaced with a better formula. He also said the state will not use a "Robin Hood" approach, taking aid from one school district to meet the needs of another.
The Zarb Commission, appointed by the governor to research the issue and come up with solutions, is expected to present its recommendations to the state Legislature by March 1.
Last month, the state Board of Regents estimated the state would have to work up to providing an additional $6 billion in state aid to schools by the seventh year of an increased-aid plan, said state Assemblyman Steven Sanders, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee.
Pataki has pledged all proceeds from video lottery terminals to education over the next five years, projecting that revenue will raise an additional $6 billion for high-needs districts statewide over that period. But Sanders said a cumulative $6 billion over five years does not come close to funding the Regents' estimate.
Sanders agreed that the governor and the legislature must create a plan for the entire state, not just New York City, but he said at this point, "there are more questions than answers" about how to accomplish that.
Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie, said the lack of additional funds on top of a state deficit make it likely that money will have to be taken from upstate school districts to fund New York City schools, or will have to be shifted from the state's Medicaid budget into education.
"I just don't see the money lying around, unless you take out of education for the rest of the state and give it to New York City," said Miller.
Assemblyman Dan Hooker, R-Saugerties, said that it is hard for him to believe that revenues from video lottery terminals will make a significant dent in the money needed for high-needs districts. Hooker said revenue estimates "are as reliable as predictions of next month's weather."
"Where I truly believe the money will come from is higher taxes and I will vote no; higher fees, and I will vote no; and gambling revenues, and I will vote no," said Hooker.
If the state's plan does in fact cover all school districts, it won't be easy to create a formula for distribution, Sanders said. District wealth and test scores will play a large part, he said.
Martin Ruglis, superintendent of the Ulster County Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said two districts that could be determined as high-needs districts are Kingston and Ellenville. But Ruglis agreed that making such a determination could get complicated. High-needs districts could be determined by property values and percentages of students on free and reduced-price lunch, he said, but the designation could change every year depending on how the rest of the state looks.
The ruling last June by the state Court of Appeals stems from a 1999 suit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which argued that the state was not providing New York City public school students with the opportunity for a "sound basic education." The court gave the state executive and legislative branches until July 30, 2004, to determine the actual cost of providing a basic education in New York City and ensure a system capable of measuring whether the opportunity for a sound education was being provided.
"The one thing for sure is that we have to submit a comprehensive plan for education," said Sanders. "Hopefully by July 31 we'll have all the answers."