Every year, the government of New York shirks its legal responsibility to adequately fund our public schools.
In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled New York was violating students’ constitutional right to a “sound and basic education” by not putting enough money into its schools. The court ordered that schools were entitled to $5.5 billion more in unrestricted state funding, known as Foundation Aid.
The money was supposed to be doled out according to the Foundation Aid Formula, designed to pump the most money into schools that were most underfunded. These include districts with high concentrations of high-needs students like students with disabilities, recent immigrants, homeless students and those from low-income households, and districts that can’t raise much through property taxes. They are also typically schools with high concentrations of Black and Latinx students.
But year after year, state lawmakers substituted politics for the Foundation Aid Formula, shortchanging schools and hurting students who need the money most.
Now, with a looming budget deficit, schools are at risk of seeing a cut to their already insufficient resources.
Though a lack of funds undermines schools across the state, each region is impacted differently. Here are some of the different ways the missing money translates into fewer resources for students of color in three parts of New York: New York City, Long Island, and Syracuse.
New York City
In 2019, the New York City Department of Education contended with more than $100 million in budget cuts. These cuts impacted students in a number of ways, but one of the groups most hurt by a lack of funding are homeless students.
New York City schools are serving a record number of homeless students. Approximately 10 percent of elementary-age students and 7 percent of middle and high school students are homeless. Ninety-five percent of school-age homeless children are Black or Latinx.
Schools must provide intensive supports to homeless children so they can have a chance of succeeding. Research has shown that, in order for homeless students to perform on par with their peers, they need one-on-one relationships with teachers and other professionals, time off from school to attend meetings with social service agencies, access to basic things like food and clean clothes, and reliable, free transportation.
Without enough money to provide these supports, vulnerable students are more likely to miss school, fall behind, and drop out. Where school could be a stabilizing influence for children with chaotic lives, it becomes harder and harder for educators to meet their needs without funding.
On Long Island, school districts often fail to accommodate immigrant students, despite a clear moral and legal mandate to do so. Due to a lack of money for English Language Learner classes, interpretation services, and bilingual education, we constantly hear about students who are new arrivals being turned away, sometimes not even permitted to register.
These kids and families are illegally and cruelly scapegoated for the failures of the state to fund districts adequately.
Year after year, state lawmakers substituted politics for the Foundation Aid Formula, shortchanging schools and hurting students who need the money most.
In 2010 and 2014, the NYCLU issued reports which uncovered dozens of school districts across the state asking families for social security numbers and immigration documents at enrollment. This is illegal because it can discourage immigrant families from registering. Long Island school districts are still among the worst, regularly denying or restricting access to immigrant families.
This is discrimination, unacceptable and unlawful regardless of funding, but it is exacerbated by the education funding gap.
In school districts without the money to invest in alternatives to punitive discipline, teachers often rely on suspensions and police interventions to maintain discipline. These approaches have a devastating and disproportionate impact on students of color.
In the 2015-16 school year, Syracuse City Schools referred more than 60 students to the police and had a suspension rate of 22 percent (29 percent for Black students). For comparison, New York City had a suspension rate that year of just under 4 percent (7 percent for Black students).
When they have a reasonable caseload, guidance counselors and social workers can help ensure the needs of the whole student are met—academic and otherwise—reducing the burden on classroom teachers to meet students’ needs and manage the classroom. These supports can keep kids from being suspended, arrested, and removed from their regular learning environment.
But in Syracuse, the caseloads are far from manageable. The Syracuse City School employs just 40 school counselors for a student body of approximately 20,000, a ratio of 500 students to each counselor, compared to the recommended ratio of 250:1. The district employs a total of 50 social workers, again far from meeting the recommended 250:1 ratio.
The state funding gap means support staff in Syracuse public schools are overburdened. They are unable to provide the kind of attention students need to be able to learn from their mistakes and stay in the classroom.
These three areas are far from the only ones struggling to meet students’ needs. The Rochester City School District, for example, has announced plans to lay off more than 100 teachers due to a budget crisis. This budget season, our legislators and our governor must step up and provide the money necessary for all students to succeed.