June 12, 2001
Testimony before the Senate Minority Task Force on School Aid Equity

Good morning.  I am Evelyn Jones Rich, Chair of the Education Committee of New York City Americans for Democratic Action. 

Thank you for the opportunity to present NYCADA’s views on the issue of school funding – specifically on strategies to design and implement a new funding formula which will guarantee to every student in New York State access to the sound, basic education which is his right under the New York State Constitution.

NYCADA is the local affiliate of Americans for Democratic Action, an independent, liberal, political organization, founded in 1947 and dedicated to promoting individual liberty and economic justice through education and political action.

Ladies and Gentlemen – this conversation is not about CWR’s, Excess Cost Aid, Transition Adjustments, Ladder or Star.  Rather we – elected officials, policy makers, education advocates, researchers, private citizens – all of us have it in our hands to draw new parameters, raise the level of discussion and initiate the change required to address forthrightly the challenge before us.

We have all been down this path before!  We have studied the language of school finance, reviewed the research, interviewed the participants, attended the conferences, read the meeting reports and, yet, we stand in the same place. ADA challenges you to change the terms of the debate, to recognize the harsh reality of a political system which has harmed children and our State.   We face the next frontier – the unmapped minds of poor and minority children attending public schools unwilling and, to some extent, unable to serve them.  We have the unique opportunity to identify and provide the resources to bring them and their children’s children into the mainstream of New York State. Doing so will enable them to meet the new Higher Standards embodied in Part 100 of the Commissioner’s Regulations and provide them with the skills to be productive citizens capable of providing for themselves and their families. It will also enable New York State to retain its place as the premier economic center of the nation.

Article 11 of the NYS Constitution requires public schools to provide all children with a sound basic education. Judge Leland DeGrasse, in his January 2001 ruling in CFE vs. New York, declared that NY State has over the course of many years consistently violated the State Constitution by failing to provide that opportunity. He defined that education as consisting of “the foundational skills that students need to become productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment.”

Fifteen percent (15%) of children in the U.S. under 18 years (4,690,000) live in NY State.  Forty two percent of these are enrolled in the Big 5 School Districts.  Further, the dependent public schools districts of Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers, Buffalo and New York City are now overwhelmingly minority (80%) and are becoming more so.  Analysis of census data confirms that the number of children of color – be they African-American, Latinos, Asians and all those in between - is growing at significant rates.  These five cities are all under funded with per pupil expenditures below the state average. 
Undoubtedly, representatives from the Big 5 have presented other telling data already.  School buildings are, on average, more than 55 years old. Class sizes are increasingly above the state average.  69% of New York’s pre-kindergartners are educated here.  40% of the state’s special education students are enrolled here.  Almost 82% of all English Language Learners study here.  Figures for participation in free and reduced lunch programs are also staggering:

            Buffalo – 89%
            New York City – 81%
            Rochester -  96%
            Syracuse -      76%
            Yonkers -        73%

Although it is true that New York State has increased school aid expenditures in total dollars over the past three years and that aid, as a percentage of the total spent for education has also risen, NYS still contributes only 45% of the total school aid expenditures.

The cruel fact is that as school aid has increased – and it still does not approximate maximum contributions achieved in 1968-69, the five cities which educate almost half the State’s population have gotten poorer incrementally.  Yet, they serve a substantially higher portion of poor children than does the rest of the State.

Whites have abandoned the system in large numbers, leaving significant numbers only in the well funded affluent suburbs.  And, there are seven school districts in down state suburban areas with minoritiy enrollments of over 80 % - Mt. Vernon, Amityville, Hempstead, Roosevelt, Westbury, Wyandanch, Uniondale - which are under funded.

Four of the seven suburban high minority districts are below the state average in property and income resources as measured by their combined wealth ratios ([CWR’s] which indicate a school district’s property and personal income wealth relative to that of the state as a whole). These poor downstate school districts must meet the higher costs of the region, taxing themselves at relatively high levels.*

It is largely true that minority youngsters are not achieving academically in the New York State’s public schools.  And, the absence of significant resources is a large part of the reason why.  The indicators of school performance verify this fact.

* According to the EPP report, Checkerboard Schooling, the average property tax rate in the seven suburban districts is $23 per $1000 property value  compared with a statewide average of $15.40.  The rate in NYC is $13.60 per $1000 of property value.

A review of the data in the 655 Report verifies that minority children – indeed many hundreds of thousands of children in NYS - are not meeting the State’s minimum educational standards.   Most of NYS’s designated SURR schools serve minority youngsters.  Data gleaned from the 4th and 8th grade reading tests confirm poor performance. So, too, do regents data.  These numbers are equally disturbing for the nation as a whole.

Among 4th graders nationwide, 63% of black students and 58% of Hispanics perform at “below basic” level, meaning that they do not understand what they are reading. This “achievement gap” persists across all grade levels and subject areas. 

Yet, as we affirm the ever recurring motto that “all children can learn,” we continue to fail to provide the resources to realize this goal.

My point is that NYS hosts failing students in failing schools first of all because these schools are underfunded.  And, they are underfunded because they serve minority youngsters, for whom there are few advocates.  Those few advocates who do exist have little power or influence.  ADA recognizes that schools in rural areas are also underfunded.  Our concern for schools serving primarily minority youngsters should not be interpreted as a lack of concern for rural schools.  They, too, serve largely poor children who deserve the same opportunity to learn as do their city  counterparts.

Secondly, schools are under funded because of political arrangements made by New York State elected officials.  These arrangements are sanctioned by down state power brokers for whom education is not a high priority. Lawmakers up-state are measured in large part by the funds they bring home for school aid.  Lawmakers down state value the support of unions representing hospitals and social services more than those representing teachers.  Maintaining and expanding jobs in these areas have greater importance for them than providing the resources to educate New York City’s children. Remember that these children cannot vote! They are mostly poor and black and brown. They have no power or influence. And, it is in this context that we attempt to create a new formula for school aid.

Two thirds of the entire NYS budget funds local assistance efforts.  School aid, welfare and Medicaid comprise the bulk of these efforts.  Since New York City receives the bulk of funds for welfare and Medicaid, power brokers trade away City claims for school aid.

Reshaping a funding formula in the light of these realities does not mean recalculating the 56 different enabling equations which will comprise the ultimate formula. It means rejecting the system and the dynamics which sustain that system while creating a new environment for school funding.  We recommend the following toward that goal:

1.  Eliminate the dependent school districts and create five new independent school districts.  Doing so will confront the problem of maintenance of effort, insuring that all allocated state funds actually reach students in the system.  Legislative barriers to the creation of these new districts can be overcome if the political will exists to do so! This action effectively also responds to the problem of the municipal overburden. 

  1. Require that New York State assume all costs necessary to fulfill educational standards established by the State Education Department.  NYS categorical grants should be minimized since extra costs which they now cover should be included in basic operating costs.  This amount will reflect the actual costs of providing a sound basic education, take into account regional variations, provide for sustained and stable funding facilitating long term planning and ensure both transparency and accountability. Implementing this recommendation will eliminate the current practice of determining in advance how much New York City, the suburbs and the rest of NYS will receive.
  2. Eliminate the property tax as a revenue source for school funding.  Local school districts should be responsible for all non-instructional costs including debt service, transportation, building, food services, central administration and miscellaneous non instructional expenses as defined by SED. 
  1. Additional funds required to operate schools should be generated by localities from an income tax with corporations contributing an amount based on profits. 
  2. Fund all teacher and support staff salaries at the State level.  Create a state wide salary schedule based on preparation, length of service and results, with additional stipends for those willing to teach in difficult areas. Provide additional stipends for those teaching in inner cities and rural areas. New teachers would have the option of selecting the city or area where they would teach but would have to accept the school assignment where placed. 
  3. Use the lottery funds to finance non-instructional costs in low wealth districts such as rural areas.  These funds currently supplant rather than supplement allocations.  The public deserves to have the funds serve their intended purposes.

Finally, ADA believes that students should enter school ready to learn.  This means that all children should have access from birth to services which insure health and safety. Every parent should have a stable place in which to live, reliable day care and a job which pays a living wage and leaves time to spend with family.

A sound state school finance system should be guided by principles of equity, efficiency, adequacy, accountability and stability.  We believe that the recommendations, cited above, address all of these principles.

Others have testified or will testify on the details of the formula.  They will discuss the building aid formula, the importance of providing for regional variations, the significance of Pre-K funding and the like.  These  are details which play out in an environment where fairness dominates.

Finally, we know what it is we have to do to change our schools.  The State Education Department knows, the State Legislature knows, elected officials know, those power brokers behind the scenes know and citizens know.  We owe it to our children – all of our children - to act on what we know. 

What do we know?  That poor and minority children are pawns in the hands of those who refuse to recognize that the future of NY State is inextricably bound to the quality of education we provide them. Affluent children in Scarsdale are served when we properly educate poor children in West Coxsackie. 

The survival, maintenance and growth of a free, democratic society depends on the quality of education delivered by its public schools. 

This is our moment and we must act now.

Working Families Win Reports Meetings Newsletters Speaking Out Endorsements Legislative Ratings Testimony Working Families Win Reports Meetings Newsletters Speaking Out Endorsements Legislative Ratings Testimony Working Families Win Reports Meetings Newsletters Speaking Out Endorsements Legislative Ratings Testimony
Web site content © NYC Americans for Democratic Action. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission.
Working Families Win Reports Meetings Newsletters Speaking Out Endorsements Legislative RatingsTestimony