Despite two years of school aid increases, more than 70 percent of districts statewide still have less state aid this year than in 2008. Since the Great Recession began, 35,000 education positions have been lost, leaving schools short-staffed, classes overcrowded and vital programs eliminated. And, the state is now underfunding the Foundation formula by a staggering $4.3 billion.
Aggravating these dire financial constraints is a property tax cap (see related story) that has significantly hampered the ability of districts to raise revenue locally. The cap has been especially devastating in low-wealth districts, both urban and rural, where it is far more difficult to raise funding outside traditional means.
Despite their paralyzing financial plights, school districts are being forced to divert millions of dollars to pay for hastily rolled-out reforms, such as the new Common Core standards. And that's leaving many in education wondering how they can foot the bill when money is already scarce.
"If New York truly expects its students and teachers to meet the higher standards set by the Regents' Reform Agenda, then our leaders must not only provide adequate money and resources to schools, they must also take the necessary steps to address child poverty and the continuing inequality in school funding," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. While the state's wealthiest 10 percent of school districts in 2012-13 spent an average of $35,690 per student, Iannuzzi noted the poorest 10 percent spent $19,823 - even though the educational needs of students in poor communities is often much greater.
"Inequity and disproportionate funding levels rob opportunities from children," Iannuzzi said. "The gap that exists between low- and high-needs districts is being made worse by the property tax cap, which locks in funding inequities and perpetuates the cycle of poverty for too many of our children."
Judith Johnson, interim superintendent of the Mount Vernon Central School District, said in testimony before the Senate Education Committee that for high-needs districts like hers, the costs associated with implementing the Regents reforms are "astronomical."
Mount Vernon, where 75 percent of students live in poverty, has lost $35 million in gap elimination adjustments over the past three years. At the same time, the district has been forced, as of November, to spend $1.45 million to implement Common Core and other reforms.
"I suggest that your examination of the reform movement include attention to the needs of poor kids who live in our cities and on our farms. For them, state funding has been going in the wrong direction," Johnson told lawmakers at the hearing examining the Regents' Reform Agenda.
Jeffrey Yonkers, president of the Mount Vernon Federation of Teachers and a NYSUT Board member, agrees. Yonkers said his district has been underfunded for years and the financial pressures confronting the district are only increasing.
"Our class sizes are higher than they have ever been," Yonkers said. "In our secondary schools, many of our core courses like science have more than 30 students per class." He said non-core classes have been cut back at the elementary level.
"If the State Education Department and Regents insist on moving forward with this reform agenda," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, "our schools must be given the resources necessary so all students, no matter their socioeconomic status, have the opportunity to succeed."
Ushering in what many educators are calling the "ultimate unfunded mandate" was $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding secured 'by New York state back in 2010. In order to receive RTTT grant money, school districts had to submit teacher evaluation plans for approval by the State Education Department.
But as James Viola, director of governmental relations for the School Administrators Association of New York, testified to the Senate Education Committee, most of those grants to districts were "insufficient" to begin with. And some school systems, he noted, received no RTTT money at all. Now with RTTT funding gone and state aid lacking, schools are left having to find ways to pay for myriad reforms being pushed by the state, and for expenses, such as training to help staff prepare to implement those reforms, an especially heavy burden for high-needs districts.
"We do not have the appropriate state support or resources to implement Common Core, especially in these fiscally challenging times, and especially in our high-needs districts," Katie Ferguson told the committee at the hearing in Albany.
"Just the other day, another teacher walked into my room to tell me how she had to write out all 24 of her spelling lists by hand because our school once again had no copy paper. How could our building once again have no paper?" asked Ferguson, 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year and member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. Seventy-two percent of students in Schenectady are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a key poverty indicator.
"How can our state expect me to deliver a rich curriculum and close the achievement gap when my high-needs district has so few resources?" she said.
In Mount Vernon, the district already has spent $50,000 for professional development through BOCES and $200,000 for substitute teachers to cover classes during the training.
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said that if, as part of its reform agenda, the state aims to enhance teacher quality, it must commit to investing in professional development. Instead, Neira pointed out, the state has cut funding to its network of teacher centers two consecutive years.
"Our teacher centers are an invaluable resource with a track record of success in helping educators sharpen their skills and adopt best practices," Neira said.
"As we shift to Common Core and implement new evaluation systems, the state needs to increase resources to these centers so they are able to continue offering different strategies and ongoing support to our teachers. To do otherwise makes little sense, and is counter-productive."
Viola, in his testimony before the committee, said additional costs include administering, accommodating and scoring state tests, providing Academic Intervention Services to help students who did not perform well on assessments and the purchase of new technology.
Most costly, he said, is the impact of lost instructional time since students are not learning when they are being tested.
"Each and every one of the education reforms entail significant new costs for school districts and BOCES - costs that were not foreseen and could not have been planned for," Viola said. Any education reforms and mandates assigned to districts should include "sufficient funding for implementation," he said.
According to the news website Capital, SED has entered a $28.3 million deal with four companies to develop Common Core curricula, which is being paid for with RTTT money.
It also reported that SED has a $32 million, five-year contract with Pearson for the Common Core-aligned math and English exams in most grades. However, what's not clear is how the reform agenda will be financed going forward.
With Gov. Cuomo's proposed executive budget expected by Jan. 21, Pallotta said the union will wage a fierce lobby campaign during negotiations to ensure public education is funded adequately.