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Fair funding report raises question about NY's school spending

The Rutgers University report on equitable school funding released today highlights that how a state distributes its education funds could matter as much as how much it spends.

The report ranked New York close to the bottom among states in terms of how much it spends on impoverished students compared to students in low-poverty districts. (The full report is below.)

The top-ranked state, Utah, spends one and a half times more per student in needy districts than in districts with no impoverished students. By contrast, in New York, districts with high concentrations of students in poverty spend just over 80 percent of what the wealthiest districts spend.

Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said the analysis pointed to the need to re-work how the state doles out money among school districts.

“In an era where we continue to impose ever greater standards on school kids, the fact that funding inequality persists to this degree — especially in a state like this one, where a lot of money is invested but the poorest kids don’t get their fair share — we have to rethink how we use and distribute our dollars,” she said.

New York spends a relatively large amount per pupil on its schools statewide, prompting officials like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo to argue that the state should find ways to pare down its education funding. Cuomo wants to reduce school spending statewide by $1-2 billion, though his policy proposals also advocate for “targeted and fair” distribution of school aid.

But the high statewide funding levels hide deep gaps between per-student spending in the wealthiest school districts and the poorest, Palast said.

“Cuomo keeps saying we spend enough money, but that masks what’s really going on at the school level,” Palast said.

The report uses funding data from 2007 and 2008. In 2007, state lawmakers directed more money to needy school districts as a result of a legal decision that found that the state was illegally underfunding those schools. Because the report used information starting before the new funds, known as Contracts for Excellence, were introduced, Palast said that New York might not be currently ranked so low in comparison to other states.

But because Contracts for Excellence funds were cut, Palast said that the state has not introduced as fair a funding system as it could have if the plan had been fully executed. She pointed out that New Jersey, which the Rutgers researchers ranked second in the nation for fair funding, also reached an agreement to redirect money to needy school districts as a result of a lawsuit.

But unlike New York, New Jersey carried out its new funding plan instead of freezing it.

“Here we are, neighboring states, and we had similar lawsuits, and had we actually had a full investment we might have had the same result,” Palast said.

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