New York updates formula for Foundation aid to school districts

The main formula used by Albany to distribute money to New York school districts — we’re talking $24.9 billion for the new school year — could finally face a major overhaul, or at least some tweaks.

The $24.9 billion represents 10.5% of the total state budget and is more than the combined budgets of 23 states.

So if you have anything to say about school funding in New York, now is the time.

The Albany-based Rockefeller Institute of Government is conducting a major study of New York’s much-debated “Foundation aid” formula, which is supposed to distribute state aid in such a way as to reduce inequalities among school districts with different abilities to raise local property taxes for education.

The Rockefeller Institute, a think tank that is part of SUNY, will hold the first of five public hearings this summer on the Foundation’s aid formula on July 16 at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. None of the hearings will be held in Westchester, Rockland or Putnam counties, but each will be streamed live on the Rockefeller Institute’s website.

Additionally, New Yorkers can submit written comments to the Rockefeller Institute’s website until September 6.

Aid Foundation’s outdated formula generates billions of dollars in aid for New York schools

For years, critics have said the Foundation Aid formula is badly outdated and needs to be modernized. For example, student poverty rates are calculated using data from the 2000 Census. The formula has also been criticized for not reflecting the current costs of educating students with special needs and those learning English.

But when the Legislature in the spring rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to cut Foundation Aid to half of New York’s school districts, one compromise was to set aside $2 million in the state budget for a Rockefeller Institute study.

Zakiyah Shaakir-Ansari, co-executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for educational equity in New York, said she was concerned that Hochul had tasked the Rockefeller Institute with studying how to keep the foundation’s aid affordable. Such a goal, she said, “could allow budgetary frugality to overshadow the constitutional obligation to provide every student with a sound basic education.”

The Rockefeller Institute is supposed to present options to Hochul and legislative leaders by Dec. 1, weeks before Hochul presents her budget proposal for next year.

“When the Legislature and the governor set a date like Dec. 1, they’re at least anticipating that it could become part of the budget process,” said Robert Megna, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “It’s up to us to put together a report. It’s up to the governor to decide what she wants to put in the budget and then negotiate with the Legislature.”

Megna knows what he’s up against. He’s the former director of the state’s Budget Division.

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The goal is to deliver more aid to needy districts.

The Foundation Aid formula was devised in 2007 after the state Court of Appeals found that New York was failing to fund a “basic and sound education” for all students. It was designed to push more state aid to the neediest school districts by weighing factors such as district poverty, education costs, local property values ​​and regional costs such as labor.

The formula was compromised in numerous ways and underfunded by the state, before the Legislature managed to secure huge increases in Foundation Aid over three years, from 2021-22 through 2023-24.

Hochul, who agreed to those increases, sought to halt them in 2024-25. She proposed cutting foundation aid to more than 300 of New York’s nearly 700 school districts, an abrupt change that would have eliminated a policy that prevented districts from receiving annual cuts in aid. But the Legislature fought back and eliminated all the cuts.

The goal now is to improve the Fundamental Aid formula so that it better measures the needs of the districts.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate education committee, helped initiate a major overhaul of Foundation Aid in 2019 that was undermined by the pandemic. She is eager to see what the Rockefeller Institute comes up with.

“A lot of the frustrations we’ve heard about the formula still apply,” Mayer said. “I don’t think the formula needs to be rewritten from top to bottom, but I do think the needs (measurements) need to be updated.”

There are many factors to measure

Mayer said the formula needs to better measure the costs of educating students with special needs and those learning English, significant costs in a growing number of districts. A better measure of student poverty than the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and more accurate measures of the regional costs districts face are needed, she said.

The formula should better weigh the district’s environmental and capital needs, including electric school buses and air conditioning, he said.

And Mayer said the formula should take into account individual circumstances that devastate many districts, such as the loss of a major taxpayer or facing a court-ordered tax refund to a large company.

“I encourage parents, PTAs, taxpayers and everyone who cares about public education to make their voices heard,” he said.

Senator Mayer will not support cuts in district aid

Mayer is not interested in any proposals to cut aid to districts, preferring to maintain the traditional “do no harm” policy on reductions.

“We’ve fought to get more money to save lives,” she said. “I’m not in favor of any district losing what they get. Some wealthy districts don’t get much, but they still rely on their help.”

Mayer is among many individuals and groups, such as the New York State School Boards Association, who wanted the state Education Department to study Foundation Aid, rather than outsourcing it. But she hopes Megna will be a “good partner.”

The Rockefeller Institute’s work will be closely followed, which Megna considers acceptable. “We want to hear what the world thinks is possible,” he said.