money matters

Here’s how New York City divvies up school funding — and why critics say the system is flawed

Governor Cuomo delivers his executive budget address.

One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s priorities this year, he said recently, is to make sure that needy schools get their fair share of funding. 

“Right now we have no idea where the money is going,” Cuomo said earlier this month. “We have a formula. We direct it to the poorer districts. But what did Buffalo do with it? What does New York City do with it?”

If he really wants to know what New York City does with its school aid, he could start by looking at the city’s “Fair Student Funding” formula.

The city adopted the school-budget system in 2007 as a way to send more money to schools with the neediest students. It replaced a system where funding was tied to teacher salaries, which had advantaged high-performing schools that ended up receiving more money because they attracted more experienced teachers with higher salaries.

But a decade later, the funding formula has not lived up to its promise. Most schools have never received the full amount the formula says they’re owed, while some actually get more than their fair share. And some principals say the formula has had the effect of making veteran teachers hard to afford.

One example: At the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a number of veteran staff members recently qualified for longevity-based raises that added roughly $340,000 to the school’s expenses. Because the formula does not give schools more money when teacher salaries rise, the co-principals had to start charging families for after-school programs and cut a planned teaching position to make ends meet.

“Eventually if all of our teachers keep staying with us,” said co-principal Damon McCord, “we won’t have any money.”  

Now, as Cuomo shines a light on school-funding equity, here’s how the process works (or not) in New York City.

How does New York City divvy up school funding?

The funding formula that New York City adopted in 2007 sets school budgets based on the grades they serve, their type (for instance, whether they are vocational or selective), and their student populations.

Schools receive extra money for students who are poor, struggling academically, have a disability, or are learning English. The idea is that needier students require extra support — and their schools need additional resources — if they’re to catch up with their better-off peers.

The formula also rewards certain selective schools, under the premise that high-achieving students also need extra attention to reach their full potential.

New York City is one of about 30 districts across the country to use this type of weighted funding system, according to the Baltimore Sun. About $6 billion of the New York City education department’s $30.8 billion budget flows through the formula, which is designed to cover schools’ basic expenses — most importantly, teacher salaries.

In addition to allocating more money to educate the neediest schools, the formula was also designed to give principals more power. Under this system, principals can decide whether to devote more of their budgets to seasoned (and costly) teachers, or to hire more junior teachers and spend the savings on an after-school program, for example.

The formula was also meant to impose some order on what was an opaque, freewheeling budget process. In the past, principals haggled with their superintendents for more money, favoring those who could best work the system, according to Eric Nadelstern, a former principal under the old system who was an education department official when the formula was adopted.

“You had massive inequities,” said Nadelstern, now a professor at Teachers College.The difference could amount to thousands of dollars per student, particularly for schools in middle-class neighborhoods and schools in poor neighborhoods.”

What’s wrong the city’s budgeting system?

The Fair Student Funding formula has never quite lived up to its ambitions.

When it was first adopted, city officials wanted to avoid taking money from wealthy schools, so instead they promised to raise poorer schools’ budgets. However, around the same time, the Great Recession hit, causing New York State to roll back planned increases in school aid to districts.

As a result, the formula has never been fully funded — and some poorer schools have never quite caught up to wealthier ones. Last year, only 23 percent of city schools received funding at or above the level to which the formula says they’re entitled, according to numbers provided by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

That creates situations like the one inside a school building in Lower Manhattan shared by New Design High School, which serves a very high-needs student population but does not see its full allocation, and the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, which enrolls a less needy population but gets more than its fair share.

The dual language school where about 3 percent of students have a disability and 85 percent are poor  received 112 percent of what the Fair Student Funding formula said it was owed last year. By contrast, New Design where nearly 28 percent of students have a disability and 100 percent are poor got just 92 percent of its formula money.

“This whole system is just holding an old, antiquated, unfair system into place,” said Scott Conti, New Design’s principal.

Critics have also questioned the part of the formula that gives extra money to selective schools that enroll higher-achieving students — and which tend to enroll relatively small shares of black and Hispanic students. More than a dozen elite high schools get about $1,000 extra per student through the formula, which has added up to more than $100 million since 2012, according to WNYC.

Others have suggested that the city should spend less on district-wide initiatives, and instead give the money directly to schools to spend. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda devotes millions of dollars to a slew of efforts, including more computer-science classes, advanced courses, and college counseling. Some principals say they would rather the city pour that money into their budgets.

“My preference would be for them to cancel all those programs and give it all to the Fair Student Funding formula,” said a Bronx principal who asked to remain anonymous.

City officials say they are working to increase funding for the formula, and added that Equity and Excellence and other initiatives directly support schools. But they also said the city needs help from the state in order to fully fund the formula.

“By raising the Fair Student Funding floor citywide and making targeted investments through our Equity and Excellence for All agenda, this administration is investing more than ever in all our schools,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen in a statement. “To fully support Fair Student Funding, we need the state to meet its obligation to provide Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding.”  

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”