EDITORIAL: The formula doesn’t work

A FEW YEARS AGO THE STATE legislature and then Governor Eliot Spitzer simplified the funding formulas for state aid to public schools. They consolidated most of what the state contributes to school districts into a category called Foundation Aid. This supposedly improved the old, more complex system.

So let’s see what we know about Governor Cuomo’s executive budget for school aid in the 2013-14 school year. The governor says foundation aid “cannot exceed a 15 percent increase over 2011-12 foundation aid.” That’s clear. But to arrive at what amount a district will receive you have to use formulas that start with your Total Aidable Foundation Pupil Units (TAFPU) modified by the consumer price index, the Regional Cost Index (RCI) multiplied by a Pupil Need Index (PNI) minus a State Sharing Ratio (SSR), and don’t leave out the Total Wealth Foundation Pupil Units (“twaf-poo” as opposed to “taf-poo”) and “0.0130 multiplied by an Income Wealth Index (which ranges from 0.65 to 2.0)….”

 

Here’s a test: The current total state foundation aid for the six public school districts in Columbia County is $41,019,046. Using the methods described above, circle the correct answer for the total foundation aid in the 2013-14 school year.

A. Damned if I know

B. It better be higher

C. $41,019,046

The answer is… “C,” exactly the same as last year. All it takes is a Ph.D. in nuclear physics to figure that out. But aid to schools actually comes in 16 separate categories, and toward the bottom of the list is the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the magical category meant to adjust for unequal funding in the lines above by awarding needy districts more money.

Last week school officials from around the region gathered in East Greenbush to hear some veteran educators talk about the dire straits public schools and taxpayers face in the coming years. One speaker said his figures show school districts upstate receive less than their fair share of state funding for education. Without having delved into his data, I can’t say whether his Pupil Units make more sense than TAF and TWAF of state bureaucrats. But it’s worth recalling that only a few years ago the state’s highest court ruled that New York City schools had been shortchanged billions of dollars by state formulas and the city was due a refund.
The problem is not the budget categories or the grab bag of factors used to determine who gets what. The people who generate these complex computer games have done their best to harness all the available data on community wealth and student needs into one magic lamp designed to satisfy everybody’s wish list. We’ve demanded they produce a formula for fairness. That’s asking for a number that doesn’t exist.
There won’t be a quick solution to the high cost of education nor will state government have the resources to make fundamental improvements. We have so carelessly neglected our educational infrastructure that the math skills of U.S. 4th graders ranked behind their counterparts in Taipei, England, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Singapore in the latest data available, and that’s only one subject in which we’re lagging. Not in your school? Just wait. This lack of support for high performance in education throughout society is a national problem and it will require a national response.
As taxpayers we expect our state representatives to demand that the formulas provide the money they need to function. But beware of anyone who tries to make the funding formulas into a boogeyman responsible for all the flaws of our educational system. Proceed with caution as well if you’re told salvation lies in ending “unfunded mandates,” the requirements the state imposes on districts that, if eliminated, would produce substantial savings.
The state does have a role in this regard. The Education Department should assist every school district in identifying all costly mandates and producing a standardized cost-benefit analysis that shows the impact of eliminating those mandates. Let’s see what we’d save and who’d get hurt.
You’ll hear people say that more money won’t improve education. Don’t believe them. Imagine instead that the federal government decides to pay healthcare and pension costs for career teachers just like it does for veterans. Imagine if all the savings from that were used to improve educational performance. The 1% tell us unconventional ideas like these will never work. You might say that too if you could afford to send your kids to private school. 

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