Last April, Governor Andrew Cuomo established the New New York Education Reform Commission, charged with identifying "successful models and strategies" to "boost student achievement without increasing spending." The Commission must issue preliminary recommendations by December 1, 2012, and a final report by September 1, 2013.
The 25 member Commission has held numerous public hearings over the last several months. The Governor wants schools to do more with the funding they have. But that's not what the Commission is hearing from parents, teachers, students and advocates. Across the state, the Commission has heard an avalanche of testimony about the devastating impact of recent funding cuts, especially in high poverty schools, and the need to fix New York's broken school finance system.
The Commission has also heard that the school funding cuts violate the rulings of the State's highest court in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case. In CFE, the Court defined the constitutional right to a sound basic education as "a meaningful high school education" that prepares all students for productive civic participation. The Court also ordered the State to determine the resources needed to provide this opportunity for New York City school children, and expressly invited the governor and Legislature to address those resource needs for all children statewide.
In complying with CFE, the Legislature and governor enacted the Foundation Aid Formula of 2007, a major school finance reform. The new formula established a relationship between student need, state aid and local wealth, with a commitment to phase in over $5.5 billion in new state aid over four years, targeted most to students in high need districts and schools.
The Foundation Formula got off a promising start. But the State in mid-stream abandoned its historic commitment to adequate and equitable funding as mandated by CFE. Using an array of budget gimmicks -- Gap Elimination Adjustment, Personal Income Gap Index and the Tax Levy Cap -- the Legislature and Governor wiped out the first two years of Foundation Aid increases and locked-in state aid levels at least $5.5 billion below the constitutional minimum.
Governor Cuomo's Reform Commission is now hearing about the educational consequences of the State's failure to provide the CFE funding. Across the state, class size has increased, instructional teaching staff have been let go, advanced placement, arts and other electives have been cut, and programs to provide extra help to at-risk students have eliminated.
Among the hardest hit are New York's "small cities" and rural school districts. The small cities have sued the State and will soon offer evidence in an Albany courtroom of the serious deficiencies in their educational program and performance triggered by the CFE funding cuts.
The School Reform Commission has an historic opportunity to stand up for the constitutional rights of New York's public school children. The Commission can recommend Governor Cuomo and the Legislature put the 2007 Foundation Aid Formula back on a four year cycle to fully restore the $5.5 billion funding shortfall.
Restoration of CFE funding is a fundamental prerequisite to achieving the Commission's overall goal of improving academic performance. More importantly, it will begin to align school funding with the costs of delivering quality education to all students, including low income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
So the question is: will Governor Cuomo's Reform Commission be a champion for school funding equity?