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Balancing act

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A lawsuit filed last week pits two concepts against each other over the issue of funding education.

The first concept is ensuring that New York state is fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide adequate revenue for all public schools. The lawsuit — filed Tuesday in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan by a group of parents, school board members and teachers — seeks to compel the state to adhere to court rulings from 2003 and 2006, which declared that New York was violating Article XI, Section 1 of the state constitution.

But the other concept involved here is where the state will come up with the billions of dollars that members of this group claim is owed to the public education system. The New York State Legislature doesn’t have a machine to print all the money it needs for funding priorities. Whether through income taxes on the state level or property taxes on the local level, all the money used to pay for public schools comes from taxpayers.

The group behind the lawsuit is called New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights. This organization is made up of “15 parents from throughout the state, along with members of education groups including the New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York State Council of School Superintendents and New York State Association of School Business Officials,” according to a Thursday story in the Watertown Daily Times.

“The suit alleges that, in many schools around the state, schools are unable to provide students with the full range of resources that are constitutionally required because of limited budgets. In these schools, students share textbooks and can’t take books home after school. Classrooms are overcrowded at a time when higher standards require even more individualized support,” according to the website for the Campaign for Education Equity. “Tutoring and other supports for students who are struggling academically are rationed only to a few children. Advanced and AP classes, art and music programs, and important extracurricular activities like school government and school newspaper have been severely cut back or eliminated in many schools. College and career counseling is nonexistent in many places. Even state-required instruction in areas like science, social studies, physical education and foreign languages has been curtailed.”

One of the goals of the lawsuit is to compel the state to abandon the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was a direct reduction in formula aid for declining state general fund revenues. This initiative forced school districts to use more of their own money to operate daily functions by dipping into their reserve funds, some of which were rather large.

Resolving these two concepts will be an incredibly difficult task. Of course the state must adhere to the law by complying with court orders, even if that means coming up with more money for public schools. But we cannot return to a time when deficit spending was the norm in Albany.

Many school districts in the north country are withering financially, but few people want to see property taxes increased. The state should re-examine its use of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and increase funding for school districts.

At the same time, those behind this lawsuit should realize that the state’s financial resources are limited. We’ll all need to be more creative about how we restore a practical level of funding to public education without breaking the bank in the process.

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