Education underfunding still foundation of New York’s new budget
Under Gov. Cuomo, the state has begun to once again gradually increase the amount of aid it provides to public schools. However, it has yet to meet the level it agreed to provide in 2007 in order to comply with the court’s mandate. The lawsuit says that the state is still on the hook for some $4 billion. The budget passed this month by the Legislature reduces that amount, but Rebell said the gap is still more than $3 billion.
A constitutional, not a fiscal, matter
Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said that his group and other advocates for more school funding were never in agreement with the idea that the state could backtrack on the promised funds in response to the recession.
“We took issue with that argument when we were in the fiscal crisis, because the constitutional obligation was not subject to the fiscal position of the state,” Easton said, even though “you could still understand if the state might need a little more time to do what it needed to do.” However, even the need to defer the expense is no longer a valid argument. “The fiscal crisis is over,” Easton said. “That argument is now moot.”
Easton also clarified that the original commitment for increased funding was supposed to be ongoing, rather than a one-time infusion after which the state could return to prior levels of funding. “It was a commitment to increase the funding in order to increase student opportunity, not on a temporary basis, but on a permanent basis, because there was a permanent constitutional violation,” Easton said.
According to Rebell, this means the amount owed by the state is even higher than the amount it originally agreed to: the $7 billion increase was supposed to have been achieved by fiscal year 2010-2011, so today’s level should be even higher to account for inflation and other factors causing costs to rise. “We’re saying that they haven’t provided what they promised, and in addition we need a new cost study, because we don’t know exactly what [the amount] should be at this point,” Rebell said.
Now, however, there are signs that Cuomo believes the lower levels of funding were not simply a response to a bygone fiscal reality, but that the state should in fact be spending less on schools than it agreed to in 2007. The evidence is in a number of statements that Cuomo and his spokespersons have made in response to the lawsuit and other calls for increased school aid, which regularly claim that New York state already spends more per pupil than any other state. As a Cuomo spokesperson told the New York Times this month, “Money alone is not the answer.”
But the court’s 2006 decision did not only mandate that the state increase funding. Rather, it specifically mandated that the state increase funding by an amount that it could prove reached the level necessary to provide a “sound basic education.” In other words, the Legislature did not promise an additional $7 billion arbitrarily; it did so because this is the amount the Legislature itself defined as necessary to meet the constitutional mandate. To lawfully reduce that amount, Rebell said, the state would need to prove that the lesser number still pays for the level of education it is obligated to provide.
“They’ve never repealed the 2007 law,” Rebell said. “If they can show that they can provide a constitutionally adequate education at a lower cost…that would be great.” This, however, has not happened. “The governor, the legislature and the State Education Department have never done any kind of detailed analysis of what’s been going on in the last four or five years while these cuts have been in effect. They’ve essentially said, ‘We don’t have the money, so somehow you’ve got to do more with less’…But there’s a constitutional obligation. If there’s a more efficient way to do it, they have to show what it is.”
Blowing a hole in the budget
To assess the question of the unpaid school funding in its larger budgetary context, Remapping Debate asked Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a conservative-leaning think tank focusing on fiscal policy in New York state, what effect paying the full amount agreed to in 2007 would have on the state’s finances.
“It would blow a big hole in the budget,” Lynam said. “And they would have to figure out how to fill that hole.” In other words, if the state were to fully comply with the mandate from the Court of Appeals in the way it agreed to do in 2007, the budget passed by the Legislature and celebrated by Cuomo — including tax cuts and pre-K funding — would no longer be balanced. “If the state were required to pay the money, they’d have to balance the budget in other ways,” Lynam said. “They’d have to make cuts, or they’d have to rearrange spending on other items.”
Lynam added that this is especially the case given that Cuomo’s central claim regarding the state’s fiscal situation — that there is a $2 billion surplus — reflects an optimistic projection rather than current reality. As has been widely reported, this surplus is contingent on the state keeping spending growth lower than 2 percent for the next several years, something Cuomo has taken as a given. But, Lynam said, “There would be no way to keep spending growth at 2 percent or under and also increase school aid by $4 billion.”
Lynam said that she does not necessarily agree that the state is constitutionally obligated to provide the amount of funds it agreed to provide in 2007. Indeed, Lynam is inclined to agree with Cuomo’s statements that New York state should figure out new ways to make more out of the money it already spends. Still, by simply failing to provide the agreed-upon funds, Lynam said, the state is still failing to contend head-on with the issue of school funding.