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New York Panel Recommends Overhaul of Schhol Finance

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A New York State task force on school-finance reform last week submitted to Gov. Hugh L. Carey recommendations for reducing disparities between rich and poor school districts in the state.

The 34-member panel, officially known as The New York State Special Task Force on Equity and Excellence in Education, was appointed by the Governor and the Board of Regents in 1978 after a state court declared New York's school-finance system unconstitutional.

According to figures from the state department of education, the highest expenditure per pupil in New York is $9,406, the lowest is $1,758; the average is about $2,600.

The task force also produced seven different "packages" of school-finance proposals, ranging in cost from $500 million to $1.5 billion. The most expensive package was endorsed by a majority of the task force's members.

The diversity of the task force's membership--which included educators, state and county officials, and businessmen, as well as representatives of city and rural interests--resulted in minority recommendations on many issues. Some parts of the majority "package" did not receive majority approval when they were voted on individually.

Dramatic Changes

The individual recommendations, not all of which are in the package endorsed by the majority, suggest some dramatic changes in the state's education policy and school-financing formulas, including:

The phasing-out of the state's "flat-grant" and "save-harmless" provisions, which protect school districts from rising property values and enrollment declines by guaranteeing them as much state aid as they received in the previous year. In this school year, the state is spending $104.8 million on "save-harmless" aid, out of a total aid package of $4.2 billion.

Giving greater consideration to per-capita income in determining a district's wealth. Property valuation is now the primary factor.

Providing extra aid to compensate for "municipal overburden" in areas with heavy tax burdens for other services such as Medicaid, and a rural adjustment for sparsely populated districts. The task force also recommended giving more state money to school districts with large numbers of handicapped students and children whose proficiency in English is limited. In addition, the task force voted to include a local cost-of-living adjustment in the state education-aid formula.

Basing a school district's eligibility for state aid on enrollment rather than average daily attendance, and requiring school districts to raise a minimum amount of school aid in order to be eligible for state support. No such requirement now exists in New York law.

Substantially raising the ceilings on the state's two-tier aid formula, an "equalizing" formula that is intended to direct a disproportionate amount of state aid to poor school districts.

An average district in New York now receives between $950 and $1,000 per student in state aid annually; under the majority "package," the figure would increase by about $400.

At least 100 of the state's 712 school districts would lose aid under each of the seven "packages," while some 500 poorer districts would receive more state money.

The state now pays about 40 per-cent of public-school costs in New York; under the task force proposal the figure would be approximately 50 percent, if all the money were appropriated in one year. The national average is about 48 percent.

Impact Unclear

What impact the panel's recommendations will have on the state legislature and the Governor remains unclear.

James R. Ruhl, an aide to Senate President Warren M. Anderson, said the legislature will not act on the task force recommendations until the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, rules on the constitutionality of New York's current system of financing public education. That decision, in the case of Levittown v. Nyquist, is not expected until late summer, at the earliest.

Three lower New York courts have ruled that the state's school-finance system, by allowing per-pupil expenditure to become largely a function of local property wealth, violates the state constitution's equal-protection and education clauses, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

If New York adopts the proposals, it will join some 30 states that over the last 10 years have overhauled their public-school finance systems.

Lacking 'Clout'

Other aides said the legislature would be reluctant to vote for school-finance reforms that would leave some districts with less money than they currently spend. In addition, Governor Carey has declared he will not seek re-election, leaving him, in the view of several legislative aides, without the "clout" needed to push the reform proposals through the legislature.

Mr. Carey is scheduled to announce next week a plan for increasing state aid to education. Sources in his administration say he will seek an increase of up to 1 percent in the state's sales taxes. The tax plan will reportedly include income-tax rebates to low-income people to keep the new tax from becoming "regressive." A 1-percent increase in the sales tax would raise nearly $800 million annually.

Irving H. Freedman, Governor Carey's education adviser, said the $1.5-billion "package" endorsed by 17 members of the task force does not have a "snowball's chance" of getting through the legislature.

The task force did not make recommendations on how the state should raise more public-education revenue in its 250-page report.

'Illustration' Purposes

Max I. Rubin, a former president of the New York City Board of Education, a former member of the New York Board of Regents, and chairman of the task force, took issue with the decision of task-force members to endorse specific school-finance packages. "We are an advisory group; we should not get into the area of tradeoffs or make proposals," he said. He added that the "packages" should be used for "illustration" purposes only.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the task force, said the so-called majority package was a "politically acceptable" compromise constructed from the various individual task- force recommendations. Although at $1.5 billion it is the most expensive of the seven packages presented to the Governor, it does not include all of the individual proposals. For example, it retains the state's "flat-grant" provision.

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