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More money = better schools? 

How much will it take? And who gets it?

            Those two questions are essentially at the heart of deliberations taking place in Albany following a landmark court decision over school funding.

            New York City schoolchildren, the court ruled last year, have been denied their constitutional right to a "sound, basic education." The governor and the legislature, the courts ruled, must determine the cost of providing an adequate education and have a reform plan ready to go by July 30, 2004. But where that money will come from is unknown.

            The suit was brought in 1993 by the nonprofit Campaign for Fiscal Equity, made up of parents, teachers, and advocacy groups.

            Although the lawsuit was just about New York City, it has statewide implications, explains Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. The judge recognized that many schools face similar financial challenges as New York City and urged a statewide remedy to the problem, Siegle says.

            "He recognizes that the situation has parallels around the state and that ideally any decision that would affect that much of the allocation of education aid in New York State is going to affect the rest of the state, too," Siegle says.

            Throwing some money upstate might also prevent similar lawsuits here, she says.

            The problem, Siegle says, is that the assembly, senate, and the governor have three different ideas on how to appease the courts, and they haven't been working together.

            If all three haven't agreed to a plan by the July deadline, an arbitrator of sorts will be appointed. No one wants that to happen, says state Senator Joe Robach, because it could hurt other schools. The arbitrator could decide to take money from more affluent districts --- including ones here in Monroe County --- and funnel it downstate.

            "My job is to protect the school districts in Rochester and Monroe County," Robach says. "To push a logical agreement and make sure it's not at the expense of school districts I represent."

            The arbitrator might also decide to focus on New York City and leave out the rest of the state.

            "Rochester's just as important as New York City as far as I'm concerned," says state Assemblyman David Gantt. "There are a number of other school districts that are in the same position [as New York City]."

The frustration stems from the fact that the courts didn't say how much money it would take to make them happy. They merely said the state has to do a better job of funding schools, "whatever that means," Robach says.

            "It's very vague. It's a large unknown," he says. "This is uncharted territory."

            Even if an agreement is reached, no one knows if it will be acceptable to the courts.

            "It isn't clear what criteria [the] plan would have to meet," Siegle says.

            There is also disagreement over whether funding needs to be put into the budget by July 30 or if simply having a plan in hand is enough.

            "The court decision, when you read the language, it is confusing," Siegle says.

Gantt won't say anything beyond the fact that the assembly is "having discussions around the issue." Siegle, however, says the assembly waited for the results of a study generated by CFE with the support of other groups.

            The study, Siegle says, recommends adding $9.3 billion to the state's educational system over the next four years. And "they're saying that money needs to be put into the budget for the coming year to begin to address this."

            The senate did its own number crunching. It's important to note, Siegle says, that the CFE lawsuit was based on 1996-1997 school-year numbers. Since that time, she says, "a lot of money has been added to education spending by the state."

            In 1996-1997, the state was providing approximately $10.4 billion in education aid. In the 2000-2001 school year, the state provided $15.7 billion.

            "The senate took a look at how much they've added and is actually arguing that they're already doing what the court is telling them to do, and that maybe you don't need to add any new money at all," Siegle says. "But they've also taken the position that you certainly don't need to add any money in this fiscal year because the court said you [only] need to have a plan to resolve this in place by July 30."

            But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Since 2000-2001, state aid has stayed relatively flat while expenses have continued to rise, so the percentages have probably gone back down again, says Judy Wadsworth, deputy executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association.

            Robach hopes the legislature will be able to agree on a number to put a down payment to New York City and "also increase --- if modestly --- funding for other school districts in Upstate New York prior to the court-appointed deadline."      

The third factor in this equation is Governor George Pataki, who formed the Commission on Education Reform in response to the court ruling. The commission's report on reforming the state's funding system was due Monday, March 15.

            Not waiting around for the commission's report, Pataki increased education spending by $150 million in his executive budget proposal. The package also includes a $325 million down payment in an effort to comply with the court order. The money, the governor says, would come from projected revenues from video slot machines.

            Not enough, according to CFE. The group continues to call for a down payment of $2 billion.

            "This [the governor's] down payment is only a wobbly baby step when a giant leap is needed," says Michael Rebell, CFE's executive director and counsel.

Does all this mean that education in New York State has been sorely under funded over the years?

            "Although I think some people would be shocked to realize that, the answer is yes," Siegle says. "And the costs have shifted. Things like special education have grown to consume 15 to 20 percent of the budget."

            Pension fund payments, liability insurance, utility costs, health insurance, and other expenses continue to grow rapidly.

            At some point, government is going to have to evaluate its priorities, Siegle says. Costs will continue to climb, she says, and you can't keep asking local communities to pay for them.

            "We have a very, very expensive state government. Their operating costs are high, they use money in a lot of different ways that aren't mandated by the state constitution," she says. "Some of these are wonderful, but sometimes it's like life: You have to choose what's more important. We know providing a better education makes a difference."

            For example, the state pays more than 130 private colleges and universities in New York for each associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degree awarded. The amount, Wadsworth says, has exceeded $100 million, collectively, in recent years.

            "That's not anything the state has to do constitutionally," she says.

            Citing parallels to the GI Bill after World War II, Siegle says that if we truly want to push to the next level in this nation, "it's going to take some sum of money that may seem daunting, but is an investment, not a cost. It's the only way we're going to get there."

Brian Backstrom might disagree. Backstrom is vice president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability. He didn't return City's calls for comment, but in a press release dated late last year, the foundation said a massive spending hike for schools would be "irresponsible and ineffective."

            "If more money was the answer, New York would have closed its academic performance gap a long, long time ago," Backstrom says in the release. "New York already spends plenty of money on education; we just don't do so very wisely. Spending... must be tied to real accountability. Increased spending without meaningful reform will simply lead to more poorly educated students and poorer New Yorkers."

Should suburbs worry?

Governor George Pataki has spoken out against using a "Robin Hood" approach to school funding.

            But school districts and town officials still worry that a school-funding reform plan --- due by July 30 --- will take aid from more affluent districts and funnel it to poorer districts.

            "The suburban school districts want to maintain the quality of programming they currently provide, and require a continuation of state aid to do that," says Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel. "At the same time, they're supportive of the city school district having the kind of resources it needs to improve education so that city schools are as effective as many of the suburban districts."

            State aid may make up a relatively small portion of Brighton's budget --- about 15 percent --- but the state also contributes in other ways, such as funding for capital projects. The Pittsford School District, for example, has a $106.5 million project in the works, which includes building a new middle school. Approximately 47 percent of that project is due to be funded by state aid.

            Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, decries the Robin Hood approach. It would cause "tremendous negative political consequences" for lawmakers, she says, and, in the end, wouldn't be very effective.

            "The amount of money that's needed is so great, that if they simply took all the state aid that goes to the 10 percent of wealthiest districts, someone told me it would be less than 1 percent of what they need to solve the problem," she says.

            The goal, Frankel says, should be to bring all school districts up to an equitable funding level, and not take money away from certain schools to fund others.

            Pataki, in his State of the State speech earlier this year, shunned the Robin Hood approach.

            "We cannot be taking resources from one school district to meet the needs of another," he said.

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