What does 'equitable funding' mean to you?

by Timothy G. Kremer

On Board Online • February 5, 2018

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

For many years, NYSSBA and other education advocates have called for "equitable funding" for schools. We have used this phrase to call for a distribution method of state education aid based on the cost of providing a sound basic education, taking into account regional cost differences, pupil needs and local resources.

The U.S. Congress is also interested in equity in school funding. In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it created a new requirement that states gather data on what school districts spend per pupil at the school building level.

And now Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for state oversight on how some districts spend money at the building level.

Apparently there is a perception in Albany and Washington, D.C. that local school boards are giving the lion's share of resources to some schools while shortchanging others.

It is the responsibility of all levels of government to ensure that resources are distributed fairly. However, spending at the school building level is clearly a matter of local control.

The ESSA requirement will prompt local discussions based on data. Parents will want to know why the numbers are different for middle school A versus middle school B.

The governor's proposal, on the other hand, goes far beyond that. It would put state officials in the role of second-guessing the decisions of locally elected school boards.

Initially, only the Big 5 city school districts would be affected, if the Legislature goes along with the governor's proposal. Then the mandate would expand to 10 other districts. It is cause for alarm, because it has Orwellian overtones. Do we really want the state - Big Brother - deciding what's equitable in spending at the school building level?

It's also impractical. Can you imagine having to obtain approval from state officials in two different state agencies (the Division of Budget and State Education Department) while trying to meet deadlines for public budget votes prescribed in state law? And let's not forget that local budgets are always constructed based on assumptions regarding state aid, which aren't finalized until the state budgeting process is completed.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has no desire to butt heads with the governor, but her initial statements reflect skepticism about the wisdom of the plan. "I think that there are some concerns, clearly, about someone from State Ed and/or the Division of Budget, separated from a school and their community, saying 'You can't do something in your budget,'" Elia said.

While there are countless reasons that School A might have higher per-pupil spending than School B, the most likely condition will be that School A's teachers have more years of service (and, therefore, higher pay). And teacher contracts often limit the ability of school districts to transfer teachers.

But pursuing equity involves many factors beyond how money is allocated. To what extent is there staff diversity that reflects a particular school's socio-economic conditions and student demographics? What is being done to nurture and maintain a learning environment where every student feels safe and respected? Is the concept of equity for every student imbedded into the school's professional development program?

Outputs are as important as inputs. Student outcomes related to disciplinary actions, test results and college enrollment will vary tremendously from school to school. It's the role of local leaders to ask why and then pursue ways to make things better across all schools.

Every school board and school administrator needs to be tuned into the issue of equity, in all its complexity.

I hope the ESSA requirement results in good data for school boards to discuss and analyze. And I hope that the governor's proposal, rather than become a new mandate from on high, serves as a wake-up call.

In an era when parents can homeschool children or send them to a charter school, local school officials cannot turn a blind eye to the inequities that exist in New York's public school system. Doing right by kids requires lots of judgment calls - at the local level.

Remember, equity does not mean equality. It means fairness. We can do better than the status quo.

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