In Hempstead schools on Long Island, where 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, grant funding has helped keep class sizes down — down, that is, to 30 or 32 students per classroom. Had the district relied solely on state, federal and local funding, class sizes would be more like 38-40, said Elias Mestizo, president of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association.
"Once those grants end, our budget will not be able to sustain these positions, and we're going to be in big trouble," he said.
In Schenectady city schools, where the district sought a 1 percent increase in last May's budget vote — well below its tax cap limit — more than 23 full-time jobs were lost in elementary schools, and primary class sizes ballooned to about 30.
"We have a significant number of split-level classes, purely for monetary reasons," said Juliet Benaquisto, president of Schenectady Federation of Teachers. "If we have a fourth- grade section of 15 kids, we'll add in 15 fifth-graders to make a class of 30 kids.
"On the ground level, people feel they already have a difficult job implementing the new [Common Core] standards, the stakes are higher than ever, and the number of kids in classrooms is as high as we've seen," she said.
In rural Jefferson County, implementing the Common Core curriculum must wait. Sorry, can't afford it.
"We have basically been told that beginning any of the modules is out of the question, because we don't have money to buy the textbooks," said Cynthia Fusco, president of the General Brown TA.
Stories such as these are playing out in school districts across the state. New York state is spending less to fund education this year than it did in 2008 — before the recession kicked in. Adjusted for inflation, it means a cut of $405 per student — a 5.1 percent spending decrease from six years ago. And, even though the state increased state aid to pre-K-12 by nearly $1.6 billion over the past two years, it is far from enough to restore the programs, services and jobs that have been lost.
Years of decline in state funding is bad enough; the inequitable way state aid is distributed is even worse.
Following a 2003 court order resulting from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit in New York City, the state adopted a Foundation Aid Formula to disburse funding based on need and cost in order to provide a sound, basic education for all students. But the state has not fully honored that commitment.
The current system does not provide enough resources to allow school districts to provide educational opportunities equally.
Compounding the problem was the state's decision in 2010 to close the state budget deficit by taking a Gap Elimination Adjustment out of overall school aid. The GEA cost school districts more than $8 billion in promised school aid.
"A regressive finance system where inequity in funding persists will never be a system that can deliver a quality public education for every child," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said.
To understand just how wide the funding disparity is, consider that districts in the highest income decile — the top 10 percent — spent $35,690 per pupil, while districts in the lowest income decile spent $19,823 per pupil, according to the State Education Department's Property Tax Report Card for 2012 spending levels. (Data does not include the Big 5 cities: Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Yonkers and New York City.) The difference — $15,867 — means wealthy districts spent 80 percent more than poor ones.
NYSUT continues to pressure lawmakers to provide the school aid necessary to level the playing field between high-needs and lower-needs districts. New York ranks fifth in the country in the gap between wealthy and poor districts, according to Rutgers University researcher Bruce Baker.
"Put simply," Baker said, New Yorkers must question a governor and Legislature that "refuse to provide sufficient resources to high-needs schools and then turn around and blame the schools and communities for their own failures."
High-needs districts do without
Frank Mauro, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and education organization, said the smartest investment New York can pursue "is to make sure that each and every school district in the state provides a high quality preschool-12 education."
While that may seem self-evident, wealthier districts, even in difficult economic times, are better able to offer enriched courses, programs and activities.
Jericho High School, for example, a Nassau County neighbor 10 miles from Hempstead, offers college and AP courses, arts and performing arts classes, business classes, six foreign languages and sports teams, according to a report by the Alliance for Quality Education, "Confronting the Opportunity Gap," released earlier this year. Course selections are designed to grow students' career opportunities.
Without appropriate and fair levels of state aid, low-income, high-poverty districts tend to do without.
The AQE report cites a recent study of high-needs districts that showed a third don't have enough art teachers to meet state requirements; half could not offer required physical education; nearly all did not have enough psychologists and social workers; nor were they able to provide college readiness counseling and supports.
It's not their fault, and it's not the fault of more fortunate districts, either.
Tax cap worsens plight
Districts with smaller annual budgets are less able than those with larger annual budgets to compensate for the loss of state aid by raising local revenue through school taxes because of the property tax levy limit, or cap.
State aid currently makes up approximately 40 percent of school funding; local revenues cover 55 percent of expenditures and federal funding makes up the final 5 percent. Just a few years ago, the numbers were more like 45 percent from the state and 50 percent from local revenues. Between 2000-02, the numbers were almost even.
That 5 percent difference can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for many districts.
Districts suffering from reduced state aid must try to make up the difference in local revenues, but the tax cap law, instituted two years ago, makes it virtually impossible.
For example, General Brown — where 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — proposed a 9.9 percent increase in its initial spending plan last May. Nearly 6 in 10 voters — 58 percent — supported it. But because the plan exceeded the tax cap, it required 60 percent voter approval, and failed. The second budget proposed half that increase, below the cap. With an extensive local union effort, including funding from a VOTE-COPE rebate, the plan passed. Yet, the effects are still devastating.
The district cut in half positions in the library and in art and music programs. The same thing happened in high school technology and Spanish.
"Everything went to part-time," said GBTA President Fusco, "and it's been difficult finding people who are able to work part-time."
Band is gone. Sports exist outside the budget, supported only by boosters. It's small consolation that the situation would have been worse if the second budget failed to pass and a zero percent contingency plan had been imposed.
In Schenectady, where the budget increase was only 1 percent, special education took a hit. The district had used dozens of teaching assistants to help with special education reading instruction. Eighty-one School-Related Professional jobs were eliminated while the special ed students-to-staff ratio was increased.
"You can't simply reduce state aid over time and systematically dismantle the ability of localities to make up the revenues without losing programs and opportunities we all know kids need," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "This is a formula for disaster."
NYSUT, along with its community and coalition partners, continues to demand that New York increase funding for schools and will keep up the pressure in the next legislative session.
"The situation has got to be fixed," Pallotta said.