February Issue
January 23, 2015

Small cities press for fair and equitable school funding to ensure students receive a 'sound, basic education'

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
small cities
Caption: Utica TA President Cherie Grant teaches fifth grade at the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. The Utica district has the highest student poverty rate among all upstate districts at nearly 45 percent. Photo by Michael Okoniewski.

Utica, like so many small upstate cities, was once a thriving industrial community. But as the textile and silverware manufacturing disappeared, the city's population and prosperity went with it.

Immigrants from Vietnam and Burma and refugees from wartorn countries such as Bosnia and Somalia have put down roots in Utica over the last several decades and now make up almost a quarter of the city's population. They've helped boost the housing market and opened small businesses, but the city still has a long road to go to find its economic ballast.

Today, almost a third of the city's population lives below the poverty line. The city's school district fares even worse with a 43.86 student poverty rate - the highest among all upstate school districts. Many students come to school lacking basic skills, such as linguistics and writing. Forty-two different languages are spoken in the schools.

"We have refugee students from cultures who don't even have written language," said Cherie Grant, president of the Utica Teachers Association. "They only have oral language."

It's not English, obviously. Yet, the state requires them to take the same ELA assessments as their fellow students.

While Utica has been identified by the federal government as a primary stop for refugees on the eastern seaboard, "there's no federal money that follows them," Grant said.

Students in Utica require resources that students in wealthier districts don't need or already have: small class sizes, remedial help, administrative and cultural support.

But in Utica and other small New York state cities, the lack of state funding, the tax cap and the gap elimination adjustment have combined to crush opportunities over the past five years.

Gov. Cuomo's formula has had disastrous results. Since 2009, hundreds of staff have been laid off in Utica, Grant said, including teachers, School-Related Professionals and administrators. "And with that, class sizes have increased. The reality is that the kids are not getting everything they need."

Grant's fifth-grade class roster has grown from numbering in the low 20s five years ago to 30 students this year. Some elementary classes are at 32 and 33. Academic Intervention Services classes for English language arts average 30 students each. Still, the budget for this school year eliminates a third of the reading teachers.

"Morale is extremely low," Grant said. "Nobody's having fun anymore, if that counts for anything."

Families from some of the state's poorest school districts, including Utica, are in court, trying once again to get the state to honor its own commitment to do the right thing. Scores of students and parents are plaintiffs in Maisto et al v. State of New York, the lawsuit commonly referred to as the "Small Cities" case. It challenges the state's failure to provide essential educational resources in eight small city school districts and says the state is violating the right of district students to a "sound, basic education" under the New York state constitution.

Specifically, the suit seeks to force the Legislature and Cuomo to abide by the education funding formula adopted in 2007 - "foundation formula" - established after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case.

In CFE, the court ordered the state to provide equitable funding for New York City schools, and recommended the state apply the same standards for low-wealth urban and rural districts upstate.

After many years of wrangling - it started as Hussein et al v. State of New York in 2008 - the trial finally began in January. NYSUT attorneys are part of the trial team for the students and parents.

"The state has an obligation to provide equitable funding for its schools, and that means additional resources for the schools and students who need more," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "Impoverished students in impoverished districts, students with special needs and English language learners need more from the state to make up for the lack of resources in underfunded districts with low income, low property values and students with costly needs.

"This lawsuit seeks to force Albany to do what it should have done all along - meet its constitutional obligations to help all students receive a quality public education, no matter where they live or the level of wealth available locally," she said. Cities included in the litigation, in addition to Utica, are Poughkeepsie, Jamestown, Port Jervis, Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, Kingston and Newburgh. Their percentage of students on free or reduced price lunch - a key poverty indicator - range between 44 percent and a staggering 94 percent, with an average of 72 percent. They all have low property wealth and income and high pupil need as measured by the State Education Department. The outcome is crucial to the futures of the 55,000 students in the eight districts involved, and to the tens of thousands of other students across the state who are deprived of educational resources and opportunities, particularly those in underfunded districts similar to the eight small-city plaintiffs.

The trial will address, for the first time, the state's failure to properly fund the Foundation Aid Formula. The formula required a phase-in of $5.5 billion in new state aid over four years, mostly directed to urban and rural districts with high student need. After legislators increased aid in 2007 and 2008, aid was frozen in 2009. The state made substantial cuts in 2010 and 2011. As of 2012-13, the "Small Cities" districts are underfunded by $236 million under the 2007 foundation formula, with the funding gap ranging from $2,516 per pupil in Kingston to $6,370 per pupil in Utica.

"With the 'Small Cities' funding case moving forward, it is clear that more and more in the education community see the need to compel the state to do what's right for New York's schoolchildren," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.