Opinion Editorial on Education
Albany’s Unkindest Cut of AllBilly Easton
IN most states, top-ranked high school seniors are shoo-ins to attend their local state universities. But that’s not how it goes in New York these days. In one recent, glaring case, the valedictorian of a rural school district outside Rochester was rejected by a nearby State University of New York campus — not because her grades were too low, but because her high school didn’t offer the courses needed to compete for college admission.
Such stories are becoming increasingly common across New York State. Poor school districts are being forced to cut electives, remedial tutoring, foreign languages and other programs and services to balance budgets. Many schools in less prosperous areas face what the state commissioner of education calls “educational insolvency.”
The obvious losers are students, who will be less prepared for graduation, college and their careers. But ultimately, all New Yorkers will suffer as the lack of skilled workers becomes a long-term drain on economic activity across the state.
Only five years ago, the state committed to pumping $5.5 billion into classrooms, with 72 percent slated for the neediest schools, whether in urban, rural or suburban communities. This commitment, similar to those made in other states, came after 13 years of litigation by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, based on the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “sound, basic education” for all students. Unfortunately, that progressive commitment was abandoned as the state faced fiscal hard times.
New York started cutting education resources in 2009. The federal government stepped in that year with stimulus money directed at schools, which temporarily cushioned the blow, but was not enough to stop the onset of classroom cuts.
The problem grew worse in 2010 and 2011, when Albany made $2.7 billion in school aid cuts, resulting in the loss of 30,000 educators and increased class sizes at two-thirds of the state’s schools.
The program cuts ranged from summer school to Advanced Placement courses, but the cuts have been harshest in poor communities. Over all, cuts to poor and middle-class schools were two to three times larger per pupil than those imposed on wealthy schools.
For example, Poughkeepsie, with a student poverty rate of 80 percent, has cut its full-day kindergarten to a half day, while wealthy Jericho offers high school classes in fashion design and civil engineering. Scarsdale offers 22 Advanced Placement courses, while poor and rural Massena, in New York’s North Country, offers only two, even though many colleges now give A.P. courses greater weight than S.A.T. scores in admissions.
On top of the multiyear cuts, the state has made it harder for school districts to get more money. A new statewide cap on how high local revenues can be raised is further exacerbating educational inequities. The cap limits property tax hikes to 2 percent, which may sound fair but actually contributes to school inequality: the permitted tax increase raises a lot more revenue from million-dollar homes for wealthy schools than it raises on $100,000 homes for poorer schools. And a newly implemented cap on increases in state education aid means that even with a slight restoration of state aid this year, schools are still forced to make cuts.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been the most vocal proponent both of cutting and capping state school aid and of capping local revenues. He has dismissed the impact that cuts and caps would have on schools — a position that becomes harder to maintain as district after district reports dire circumstances.
Simultaneously, Mr. Cuomo has been a proponent of trendy “market reforms,” like increasing the role of standardized tests in evaluating teachers and using the same tests to make school districts compete with one another for resources. These so-called reforms may be cheaper, but they are no substitute for the proven programs that are being cut.
Around the world, countries with the top-performing schools, like Finland, Singapore and Canada, all emphasize equity in school financing to provide added resources for schools in poorer communities. These international leaders also emphasize ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality curriculum and providing all teachers with support to continuously improve their skills — instead of forcing teachers and schools to compete for artificially limited pools of money.
Governor Cuomo has promoted himself as a leader in education policy. His mastery of Albany’s famously dysfunctional politics has made him one of the nation’s rising political stars. But the results in the classroom do not match his rhetoric — and unless our state government changes course on education funding policy, they never will.