Photo: Skip Dickstein/Times Union
New York’s education lobby — including unions, superintendents, school boards and PTA members — wants the state to pitch in an additional $2.2 billion in school aid next year.
The request, which would bring state school aid from $26.7 billion this year to $28.9 billion during the 2019-20 year, comes even as the number of students in New York state is steadily dropping.
Despite that, members of the Educational Conference Board, a coalition of leading education-related groups, contends the students who remain in New York have greater needs, as many are poorer and needier than in prior years.
“Whether it is poverty, disability, mental health services or learning English, the needs of today’s students are real – and they are growing,” reads a statement from the ECB, which includes the state Council of School Superintendents, School Boards Association, School Administrators Association, New York State United Teachers and the Big 5 school systems of New York City, Yonkers, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.
The group also noted that between 2007 and 2017, there’s been a 14 percent increase in students with disabilities, a 15 percent rise in those getting free or reduced-price lunch, which is a key poverty marker, and an 18 percent jump in English language learners.
The request comes as the state Board of Regents next week will put in its annual request for state aid.
The Regents last year requested an additional $1.6 billion. At the time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially called for a $769 million increase. Lawmakers wanted a higher amount and the final budget brought a $1 billion increase.
The steady decline of pupil numbers statewide, with exceptions in some locations, has prompted some discussion about the way state aid is given out to the state’s nearly 700 school districts.
Overall, the state had 2.6 million public school students last year, compared to 2.9 million during the 1999-2000 school year, according to an earlier report by the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank.
That number is sharply down from a high of 3.5 million in the early 1970s.
The drop stems from a dip in the population as well as an ongoing decline in the number of people who live in much of upstate New York.
Some districts, notably in urban areas, however, have grown, due in part to immigrants who have settled there. New York City’s public school population remains the largest by far, with more than 1.1 million students.
The overall statewide decline is exacerbating what some say is an imbalance in the way state aid is given out.
“The underlying Foundation Aid formula is warped,” said David Friedfel, director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission fiscal watchdog group.
Overall, Friedfel believes that too much of the aid goes to relatively wealthy districts that can rely more on property taxes to support their schools, and too little goes to poor districts, where there is less property wealth and, often, poorer students.
Another complication comes with “hold harmless” provisions in state law that mean no district gets less, even if its students numbers are dropping.
For instance, Friedfel pointed to state records showing that the Albany district has grown by about 16 percent between the 2006-07 and 2016-17 school years.
The Berne-Knox-Westerlo district in the rural Hilltown region of Albany County, however, decreased by about 30 percent over the same period.
There are lots of ways the money can be spent, regardless of how many students are there.
BKW’s newsletter last Spring noted that the district had received a additional $97,000 in Foundation Aid, which is a baseline allocation that goes to all of the schools. That money was set to pay for a technology initiative to provide students with computers.
Either way, Friedfel noted that on a per pupil basis New York spends almost twice as much as the national average. As of 2016, New York schools spent an average of $22,366 compared to $11,762 nationally.
Per pupil spending in New York also grew more than 50 percent faster than the national average between school year 2011 and 2016, 17.2 percent versus 11.4 percent.
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