Tomorrow, people across New York State will head to the polls. On the ballot? The election of school board members to govern local public school districts. And – very importantly – there will also be the chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the only budget directly put before the electorate, the one to support K12 public schools.

Think about this as you’re “pulling that lever”: the local share of school budgets, the part paid for by your property taxes, has been increasing over time because the state has been paying proportionally less towards the general fund, effectively pushing off a greater portion of the tab to you and your property tax paying neighbors.

Overall, too, we’re still under-funding our schools, with an impact that falls more heavily on schools in poorer districts where there are fewer local resources. Here is the trend over time in local, state, and federal funding, as a percentage of total revenue, for our Ulster County school districts:

Regularly since 2008-09, the state has provided less than 40 percent of the overall funding for public school districts in Ulster County; and local property tax payers have stepped in to contribute more than 60 percent. So how, then, do we make sense of the claim, each year, that the state invests more and more in education?

Well, on its face, that statement is true; the 2018 budget, for example, includes a public school aid increase of $859 million over last year. But this money is not increasing in line with other cost drivers.

  • School costs go up every year at rates that regularly exceed the tax cap threshold; and many of these expenses are out of districts’ control (e.g., health insurance, pensions, and utilities). So while state funding has increased, it is not enough to cover the additional costs. The rest is made up by the local tax levy. The costs don’t just go away—unless you cut a program, which no one wants.
  • State aid isn’t allocated fairly. The Foundation Aid formula is theoretically designed to funnel a greater proportion of state aid to poorer districts, but with the political pressures on the legislature from high property tax suburbs and the 2008 recession, and even though the courts determined in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit that the state was falling well short, that commitment has not been followed through. To be fair, the state has done somewhat of a better job of this over the past few years. But we aren’t there yet.
  • Some of the funding in the budget goes to targeted grant programs, which doesn’t help meet core budget needs. And the funding allocated for pre-k? It’s not nearly enough of what is needed.

And there is even more to the story here: fluctuations in school revenue sources make it difficult for school districts to plan. Remember that the capacity of school districts to levy taxes to support their enlarged local share is still restricted by the “2% Tax Cap.” This limit, nominally two percent, fluctuates year to year. It is tied to the Consumer Price Index and the calculation of several other district-specific elements. The resulting limit is often less than two percent. According to the New York State Association of School Business Officials, the stated tax levy limit, statewide and without exclusions, ranged from two percent in 2012-13, to 1.46 percent in 2014-15, to .12 percent in 2016-17. This creates a lot of unpredictability from year to year.

One thing that is predictable, negatively so, is the low levels in federal aid, as shown here in the trend line in the sources of money for all of New York State public schools:

Source: District-submitted Annual Financial Reports (Form ST-3). More information and the data tables are available here: Thank you to New Paltz School Board President Michael O’Donnell for compiling this data and creating this graphic.

What does all this mean for your vote tomorrow?

Surely, we need to support our local school districts. But as we do so we need to understand how school funding has shifted and changed. Several statewide education organizations suggest that the legislature should find a way to stabilize the tax levy limit to eliminate fluctuations, or tie the base of the calculation to a school-related factor rather than the CPI, so that the limit is at least relevant to education-specific circumstances. More fundamentally, proposals like the Equity in Education Act sponsored by our Assemblyman Kevin Cahill call for a complete reconceptualization in how we fund our public schools. It’s an important conversation that is long overdue.

So tomorrow’s vote is just a first step this year. On Tuesday, you’re supporting your public schools and who you want to lead them. And in November you can elect leaders who will earnestly explore ways to make our school funding fairer for our children and more affordable for everyone in the state.