February 04, 2008

Testimony on Elementary and Secondary Education 2008

Source: NYSUT Division of Legislation

Testimony of Alan B. Lubin , Executive Vice President , New York State United Teachers, to the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Johnson and Chairman Farrell, on the Education Budget for Elementary and Secondary Education

February 4, 2008


alan b. lubinGood afternoon Chairman Johnson, Chairman Farrell, and honorable members of the Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

I am Alan Lubin, Executive Vice President of the New York State United Teachers.

NYSUT is a statewide union representing more than 585,000 members. Our members are pre-k to 12 th grade teachers, school related professionals, higher education faculty, and other professionals in education and health care.

I thank you for the opportunity to address you today regarding the Executive Budget for 2008-09.

My testimony will broadly outline NYSUT's comments on the Executive Budget proposal for public education. As always, in the days ahead, our members and staff will be meeting with you and your staff to expand on these comments and seek your help in addressing them.

Foundation Formula

I would like to begin by thanking the Governor and the legislature for enacting school funding reform last year and making a historic commitment to fund education fully over the next several years. I specifically want to applaud the enactment of a Foundation Formula in last year's budget. Adding resources fairly to public schools across the state, with an extra commitment in areas of high need, was and continues to be the right priority for both children and taxpayers. The investment in academic achievement must be a fundamental component of our economic development strategy if we are to succeed in a competitive global economy which has created an increasing demand for greater knowledge and skill.

While we understand the tough fiscal times the state is experiencing – keeping the promise to our school children is the right direction for our state. The four year phase in of increased school aid was intended to allow for local district planning and to create a predictable funding stream which schools could depend upon. In only the first year, these resources have been used to reduce class sizes, improve teacher quality, provide Universal Pre-kindergarten, and begin to finally give our children a true opportunity to succeed.

We know that this financial commitment was made in good faith. The scheduled phase-in of funding that has been promised to our schools is essential to moving all schools towards excellence. It is essential in our efforts to close the achievement gap that we keep the multi-year commitment made to our children, particularly those in poverty.

It is also worth noting that this historic increase in education funding is the most important endeavor undertaken in a generation to significantly reduce the tax burden on the citizens who support our schools. I am referring to the commitment of an additional $7 billion in aid over a four year period.  If the promised phase-in of increased school aid is kept through 2010 – 11, local property taxpayers will realize substantial tax relief. Evidence has shown us – as state aid increases, the need to raise local property taxes goes down.

That brings me to the Executive's proposed budget for education in 2008-09. While I'd like to acknowledge that the Executive budget proposal kept education a major priority, it falls short of fully funding last year's commitment. Central to the historic education commitment last year was a revised Foundation Aid formula that promised every district a minimum 3 percent increase in state aid, with high-need districts getting more. While the $900 million increase in Foundation Aid to school districts represents a healthy increase over last year, we are disappointed that the Executive Budget has scaled back the planned $1.25 billion increase.

Much of this reduction was accomplished by slowing the rate of phase-in from 22.5 percent to 17.5 percent in 2008-09. Funding to the neediest districts - those now under the Executive's Contract for Excellence Program - was also scaled back with the maximum increase dropping from 25 percent to 15 percent. We urge the Legislature to add the funding necessary to meet the full $1.25 billion 2008-09 commitment to the Foundation Formula.

We ask that you avoid cutting any district from its base level of funding. In last year's budget, several new aid categories were created by the Legislature. To eliminate or reallocatethese aid categories without replacing the funding would leave some school districts with substantial losses from one year to the next. We ask that you also be sensitive to districts with high tax burdens relative to household income and that all districts are ensured consistent treatment based on their fiscal capacity.

The state also rightly insisted on accountability for how Foundation Aid is spent in certain districts to ensure that substantial increases are directed to proven programs and practices to raise student achievement. Otherwise, these increases could be squandered or directed to non-education purposes. Unfortunately, Monroe County has already been engaged in such cynical behavior by cutting its own taxes and stealing revenue away from 26 school districts across the county mid-year. We urge you to restore the rightful funding to our schools in Monroe County.

Tax Cap Commission

I would like to address a particularly troubling issue in the Executive budget. The proposal I am referring to is the appointment of a bipartisan commission charged, among other things, with considering a school property tax cap. A tax cap proposal would take us in the wrong direction at a time when New York's education progress is being recognized.

Let me take a minute to tell you exactly why a tax cap would be bad policy for New York's school children.

1. New York Schools are succeeding. Only a few short weeks ago, Education Week's annual Quality Counts report showed that New York's schools received the highest overall marks nationwide. Our ratings show we are taking the right steps to reform education, improve achievement overall and close the achievement gap. Now the Executive is considering a tax cap when tax caps have been shown to lead to serious reductions in the level and quality of public education. It just doesn't make sense.

Let me give you some examples – In California, under Proposition 13, K-12 spending per pupil fell dramatically, dropping from more than $600 above the national average in 1978 (when Proposition 13 was passed) to more than $600 below the national average in 2000. School districts in California have been forced to cut programs such as music, physical education, and art; reduce class offerings; and cut positions, such as librarians and counselors. Similarly, in Massachusetts and Illinois, school districts affected by caps have eliminated positions, reduced the number of teaching assistants, imposed salary freezes, and cut certain classes. Studies have also found strong evidence that property tax caps lead to lower student test scores, higher dropout rates and a reduction in teacher preparedness. A tax cap just doesn't make sense if we are serious about our efforts to maintain a high quality education and close the achievement gap in New York state.

2. Tax caps do nothing to change the rising costs facing school districts; they only make it harder for schools to provide the services our children need. They cannot slow the increase in the cost of health care or fuel, for example, which reflect forces outside of the control of local officials.

3. New Yorkers have and want to keep local control. Voter's last year approved 95 percent of the state's school budgets. They showed – yet again – that when asked to choose between quality schools and lower taxes their choice is quality schools. Local communities should be allowed to keep making these choices for themselves.

4. Tax caps have been shown to disproportionately affect lower-income communities. This will exacerbate disparities across the state in educational performance leaving lower-income communities even worse off relative to their higher-income counterparts.

If New York state imposes a mandatory tax cap on levy increases, it is our students who will suffer. I only hope that you, the Legislature, will recognize that tax caps are not only a "blunt instrument," as the Governor puts it, but they are like a sledge hammer with the potential to do some serious destruction to New York's system of public education.

You should also know that your efforts to reduce property taxes ARE making a difference. I would like to give you credit for the new Middle Class STAR rebate program which is better targeted than the original STAR program in that in takes income into consideration. But STAR is still not adequately targeted to be an effective and efficient property tax relief mechanism because it does not take the size of a homeowner's property tax bill into consideration and it is still based on county and school district averages. A circuit breaker like the Galef/Little proposal (A.1575A/S.1053A) would address both of these shortcomings. A circuit breaker would essentially "cap" an individual household's property taxes as a percentage of their income. This type of tax relief would target aid to the low and moderate-income homeowners who need it most, especially seniors.

NYC Academic Achievement Grants

Let me switch gears slightly and talk about New York City, the state's largest school district, educating over a million of the state's children. The Executive's budget includes $179 million in Academic Achievement Grants for New York City, an increase of $90 million over last year. It is unclear, however, how this aid category will be distributed. We do know that it may get used up as building aid or transportation aid reimbursements - all of which would have been due to New York City and otherwise would have been paid automatically. Additionally, $100 million of the aid is tied to delaying reimbursements in school building aid by 18 months. This may have the negative consequence of slowing the rate of construction of City schools. This change could also jeopardize the 2006 commitment to support funding for NYC school construction, which was part of the settlement of the CFE case.

Moreover, bill language submitted as part of the budget indicates that a portion of this money is supposed to be used for purposes laid out in the Contract for Excellence, but this will depend on whether or not any of the funds are left after building and transportation reimbursements are subtracted. The sum total of these actions threaten approximately $200 million in funding that otherwise would have been targeted to programs such as class size reduction and full day Pre-K. Contract for Excellence funds are critical to making sure that additional funding reaches our classrooms and our children.

BOCES

Under the Executive's proposed budget, funding to the state's Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) would be cut by $67 million below what districts would otherwise receive under current law. Districts have counted on this funding for students currently enrolled in BOCES programs. These cuts break the promise made to students, staff and taxpayers. The loss of funding threatens the ability of students to receive high quality service in an environment that best matches their needs. Without restorations we may see students with disabilities in need of specific programs on waiting lists and the number of students able to pass regents exams through a BOCES integrated academic program severely hampered.

In the past, I have advocated to you what a great resource our BOCES centers have been to school districts and the students they serve, and you have always responded by restoring those cuts to BOCES aid in your legislative budgets. I know that you understand the positive work done at BOCES and truly view them as a part of the solution. I thank you for your strong support in the past and urge your continued support for the restoration of funding for our BOCES centers.

Charter Schools

Another issue that we haven't forgotten about is charter schools. As we have discussed with you in the past, NYSUT continues to advocate for real reform of the Charter School Law. We continue to witness the debilitating effects of charter schools on many local school districts, namely Albany and Buffalo. This is why we are once again coming to you today to ask for two things:

First, we would like to propose the inclusion of Charter School Impact Aid. This aid category would be in addition to Charter School Transition Aid which was a welcome addition in last year's budget, but it continues to fall short of what our schools need.

The second request that we would like you to consider is a moratorium on the approval of any new or expanded charter schools in Albany or Buffalo. Educational research indicates that the transfer of 10% of a school district's student body through either vouchers or charters will create debilitating circumstances for a school district. We have already reached this point in Albany and Buffalo.

We cannot continue to force districts to absorb the fiscal impact of charter schools in their community for only a handful of children at the expense of most of the state's students. I urge you consider these proposals and I look forward to working with you to ensure that the Charter School Law is reformed to give real relief to affected school districts.

Preschool Special Education

Another proposal which concerns us is the proposed shift to school districts of the costs associated with evaluation and administration of preschool special education. The proposal to shift $46 million in costs for pre-school special education to school districts from a broader and more equitable revenue base, flies in the face of reducing the pressure on school property taxes. If the state wishes to provide additional help to counties, then the state should provide greater assistance--not merely shift it to school property taxes. It is contradictory to advocate on the one hand capping property taxes, and on the other hand, passing on extra costs to school districts.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten

Parents, educators and communities alike recognize the need for quality preschool programs. Parents are looking for programs that are not only safe but that will nurture and help their preschoolers develop traits needed for kindergarten. Teachers realize that if we ask more from children in kindergarten we need to help prepare them before they get there. They know that improving the quality of early childhood environments can promote school readiness. Children are being asked to meet higher standards in school beginning at kindergarten and therefore they must be prepared.

Last year, Universal Pre-kindergarten funding was increased by $146 million, a 50 percent increase. This year, the Executive has proposed an additional increase of $79 million. This new funding will go a long way toward providing a quality educational beginning for New York's four year olds. At the same time, there are some recommendations that we would like to offer as you deliberate on the final budget package.

The first item is in the area of flexibility in the use of funding. In certain districts, they have exhausted their ability to provide additional half-day pre-kindergarten slots for a variety of reasons. This has led to the unfortunate occurrence of having some districts have to return unused pre-k funding. We would recommend giving some districts limited flexibility in the use of their UPK funds to provide full-day UPK programs. A certain portion of funds might also be used for improving program quality and the professional development of teachers. When the UPK law was enacted in 1997, the intent was that Universal Pre-K would be taught by certified teachers. What has happened every year since, however, is that section of law has been not withstood, allowing for UPK to be taught by uncertified personnel. It is time that we focus our energy on training and certifying our UPK teachers. This could be done over a period of several years, but we should be moving toward using certified teachers in all UPK classrooms.

Class Size Reduction

Parents and teachers have long known that smaller classes make a difference. Students in smaller classes have higher achievement levels, fewer discipline problems, and more personal attachment to their teachers and classmates. A growing body of well-designed research, including experimental research using random assignment, is confirming this conventional wisdom. New York's Contracts for Excellence, as well as specific class size provisions for New York City enacted last year, echo the importance of reducing class size. Going forward, we look forward to strengthening these provisions even further and increasing accountability at the building and grade level.

Teacher Centers and Teacher-Mentor Intern Program

As we continue the discussion of how we can provide our kids with everything they need to excel and start to show overall improvement in all of our schools, it is also important to provide those who will teach these students with the necessary support to ensure their success. I am pleased to report that three critical teacher programs - Teacher Centers, the Teacher-Mentor Intern Program, and the Albert Shanker Grant Program for teachers pursuing National Board Certification – received continued funding in the 2008-09 budget. These vital programs are an immeasurable resource to all teachers and contribute to the growth and maturity of less experienced teachers. We ask for your continued support of growth in these programs, as well as for additional support for the Peer Intervention Program. There is so much more good work that can be done with your continued support of these vital teacher development programs.

Closing

Let there be no confusion about the fact that there is still a need for an additional investment in our schools. Many of you, like me, may have been horrified in reading about a particular high school in Queens in a recent New York Times article. Richmond Hill High School in Queens - a school with a capacity for 1,800 students - currently holds more than 3,600 pupils, twice its supposed limit, and could have 4,000 students by next fall. In this school, many classes continue to be taught in so-called "temporary" trailers, which were never meant for what has now been more than a decade of nonstop use - and which now need new walls, ceilings and plumbing. The article mentioned one social studies teacher who was reduced last year to conducting class while holding an umbrella against a leaky roof.

And this is just one example.

Let us not forget that we continue to live in a state with one of the highest concentrations of child poverty in the nation; a concentration that is 50 percent higher than the neighboring state of Massachusetts and double the concentration rate of New Jersey. It has been well documented that - to put it plainly - educating children in poverty costs more. And both Massachusetts and New Jersey are spending more in their highest poverty districts than in their wealthiest. However, a student in the most impoverished New York state school district receives approximately $2,300 LESS than a student in the least impoverished school district. What's more, a recent report by The Education Trust showed that New York state continues to have the largest gap in spending between rich and poor districts in the nation.

As you deliberate on the Executive Budget request, let me share with you a quote from John Dewey, one of the founders of public education, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children."

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