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Regents Call for $2B in Additional School Aid

A committee of the state Board of Regents recommends spending $2.1 billion more on schools in the new state budget, saying it’s time to continue an effort begun a decade ago to funnel more money to the state’s poorest school districts.

The State Aid subcommittee’s recommendations, which are expected to be approved by the full Board of Regents later Tuesday, would phase in, over three years, an annual increase of 7 percent on school funding, for a total of $2.1 billion more a year by the 2019-20 school year.

“We think this is a very thoughtful way to look at the great needs in New York state in support for students,” said Mary Ellen Elia, state education commissioner.

The Regents also recommend that $300 million more should be spent on improving and expanding prekindergarten programs, helping students who are learning English, and providing more support for students seeking a non-college career. Also, $30 million would go to professional development for teachers and principals.

The Regents do not specifically mention a decade-old order from the state’s highest court that said billions more need to be spent each year on schools in New York City to fulfill the state’s constitutional requirement that each child receive a “sound, basic education.”

New York’s political leaders were on track to extend the court order to apply to all schools in the state and to fulfill the monetary obligation, but it was derailed after the 2008 recession and resulting state budget crisis.

Once again, there are signs that the state’s finances might be tightening. Tax collections are coming in over a billion dollars under original estimates. If President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, New York could have a $2.7 billion hole in its budget.

Regent Jim Tallon, who co-chaired the subcommittee meeting, said the Regents realize those issues.

“We’re not unmindful of the fact that the state is going to be in one of those cycles,” Tallon said. “We also know that there has to be an ambitious program to deal with some of the problems that we have in our school districts.”

Tallon, a former Assembly majority leader, said the Regents feel strongly that the foundation aid needs to get back on track, and it’s worth having that discussion with the governor and the Legislature.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not always been an advocate of more spending on schools, saying repeatedly over the past six years that “more money is not the answer.” But a spokesman for the governor’s budget office, Morris Peters, pointed out that Cuomo has presided over state budgets in recent years that have seen record increases in spending on schools.

“While total state spending has been held to 2 percent annual growth and most state agency budgets have remained flat, school aid has increased by 27 percent over the last five years, proving that it’s already a funding priority,” Peters said. “New York public schools now spend more per pupil than any other state and 87 percent above the national average.” 

Meanwhile, a budget watchdog group said the state could still spend more money on the poorest schools and save hundreds of millions of dollars if only it reconfigured the formula for distributing school aid.

Groups that advocate for school funding say the Regents proposal does not go far enough. The Alliance for Quality Education, which receives some money from teachers and their union, said schools should not have to wait three years to receive the full $2.1 billion increase; they need to start getting it now to improve education at the poorest schools.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.