ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – Two upstate New York school superintendents opened a new front Friday in the decades-long battle over the fairness of public school funding.
Larry Spring and Kenneth Eastwood, the superintendents in Schenectady and Middletown, filed complaints asking the federal education department's Office for Civil Rights to intervene in what they say is a state system that violates the rights of minority students by providing inadequate resources for their schools.
They argue that some affluent districts with predominantly white student bodies are getting more than their fair shares after changes to 2007 reforms intended to address a landmark court ruling that the state failed to adequately fund New York City's schools. The court said all children in the state are constitutionally entitled to a sound, basic education.
"Schenectady is one of the poorest districts, and it's getting one of the lowest levels of funding," said Spring, whose district's students are 33 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 33 percent white and include a large number newly learning English.
According to the complaint, the poorer districts are more likely than wealthier to get less than they're entitled to under the state's school aid formula, despite having weaker property tax bases. The result is larger class sizes, pressure to reduce programs, poorer performance and difficulty attracting some of the best teachers.
"There's clear data on states that have a distribution that's more equitable have a tendency to have better student performance," Eastwood said. His complaint also says that New Jersey, with a more equitable formula than New York, ranks 10th in the nation for graduating black males while New York ranks 50th.
Critics say the inequity stems from changes Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature made in recent years to 2007 legislation that was intended to eliminate the disparities after the state's top court found in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which initially filed a lawsuit against the funding system in 1993.
Wendy Lecker, a lawyer with the Education Law Center in charge of the CFE program, said lawmakers "wanted to balance the state budget on the backs of school children" and shifted billions of dollars from education while approving a cap in property tax growth that has affected "the poorer districts much more heavily than affluent districts."
The state Board of Regents said last year that the changes in aid programs had resulted in a shortfall of more than $7 billion from the funding regime created in 2007.
Cuomo and state lawmakers have defended the way they allocate education funding.
"That's called democracy, and that's what the Legislature debates every year and what is the fair amount of funding for each district," Cuomo said Thursday on public radio's "Capitol Pressroom." ''And should a rich district get no money because they're a richer district, or should they get more money because they put in more money? Should the needier districts get all the money because they're needier even though they put in less? And that is the annual debate of the state budget and the education funding formula."
State Sen. John Flanagan, chairman of his chamber's education committee, said "the overwhelming majority of new funding has gone to high-need districts" in recent years.
But, he said, "It is fair and reasonable to talk about whether we should be doing more."
The complaints Friday come as a lawsuit filed by a coalition of small city school districts challenging the funding system moves toward trial next year.