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Zack Hutchins
Director of Communications

September 24, 2003

Experts disagree on future of school funding debate after CFE decision

Top experts on school funding in New York State disagreed sharply on the likely course of future debate on the topic during a panel discussion Sept. 18 at The Business Council’s Annual Meeting.

The discussion was prompted by a June decision by the state Court of Appeals holding that New York City is not adequately teaching its schoolchildren, and that the city and state must do more to ensure a “sound basic education” for those students.

The court ordered the state to devise a remedy by July 30 of next year—without offering specific suggestions for a remedy or saying whether the state or city would have to bear any added cost. It also required the plan to consider issues related to accountability in its plan. And it expressly limited its ruling to New York City.

Participants in the discussion were: Michael Rebell, executive director of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), the New York City-based advocacy group that brought the case; Sen. Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), chair of the Senate Education Committee; and James Tallon, former Assembly Majority Leader and now a member of the state Board of Regents. David F. Shaffer, president of The Public Policy Institute and a member of a commission appointed by Governor Pataki to examine the school funding question, moderated the discussion.

Tallon said a relatively quick resolution to the debate should be within reach because school aid, despite a myriad of programs and many nuances in formulas, is “not rocket science.”

In the late 1980s, the Salerno Commission on school funding reached consensus on principles and some specifics on how to adjust school funding in New York in just four months, Tallon said. The recommendations of the Salerno Commission were not fully implemented, Tallon acknowledged. But that may be because it didn’t have the impetus of a state Court of Appeals decision behind it, he added.

Saland disagreed sharply on the possibility of a quick and successful process. Any plan to modify school funding would inevitably produce more litigation which could only be resolved by the state’s highest court, he said.

He also predicted that the matter would not be finally resolved while any current state legislator or Court of Appeals justice remains alive.

The Court of Appeals ordered the state to analyze what it would cost to give New York City students an adequate education. Rebell said the CFE has already begun discussions with representatives of about 30 major statewide organizations, including The Business Council, to project the costs of meeting educational needs, Rebell said. Preliminary and final numbers from that analysis are expected in November and February, respectively, he said.

Rebell emphasized the CFE’s motivation is not “shares” of education aid or specific monetary amounts, but rather the needs of school children. The state constitution does not entitle students a specific amount or percentage of aid but does guarantee an opportunity for a sound basic education, he noted.

“I want to assure you that we’re not in this business to get some large sum and throw it at the problems. We want to come up with the best education system. We want to have solutions that work for kids,” Rebell said.

Although the court specifically limited its findings to New York City, both Tallon and Rebell argued for a statewide solution. “We are absolutely committed to a statewide solution, and we only look at in this way,” Rebell said.

But Saland predicted that the state legislature would limit its work before July 30 to strict compliance with the court’s order: developing a cost analysis and accountability recommendations for New York City schools. He emphasized that the court said nothing about requiring a statewide application and “took pains” to say they weren’t doing that.

He also cited the state’s current budget problems in casting doubt about the possibility of dramatic increases in state aid to education.

“The Court of Appeals has put an equal sign between education spending and educational results,” Saland said. “And yes, there is value and something to be said about providing more money to deal with better outcomes. But that is not an entire answer.”

Saland also notes that the Court of Appeals in this case considered no evidence after 1997 — such as dramatic increases in state aid, improved accountability measures, and an increase in the percentage of certified teachers in New York City. He noted, for example, that since 1996-97, aid to education increased 60 percent during a period when inflation increased only 25 percent.

Those facts, he said, are “likely” to be part of the cost analysis.