Money in the Schoolhouse: How New York City’s Education Budget is Broken By Gabriel Pont

When considering money allocated to schools, there are certain assumptions that we make about how much money schools get. We assume that similarly sized schools will get similar amounts of funding. We assume that schools receive funding that will enhance the educational prospects of their students. We assume that funding will serve all students equitably. However, in New York City public schools, this is not the case.

Since 2007, school allocations from the New York Department of Education have been determined by Fair Student Funding, which is a formula designed to “send more money to schools with the neediest students,” something that these schools desperately need. The formula replaced a previous system which allocated funding based on teacher salaries, advantaging schools which attracted more experienced teachers. This meant that higher achieving schools, and often schools with higher levels of segregation, attracted more experienced teachers and therefore more funding. The formula works using three components:

  1. Foundation Amount: Set dollar amount received by each and every school. In 2012, this value was $225,000.
  2. Student Weight Categories: Student need weights are divided into five categories. (1) Grade, (2) Academic Intervention, (3) English Language Learner, (4) Special Education Instruction, (5) Portfolio (only applies to certain high schools).
  3. Per Capita Amounts: Each student need weight is multiplied by a per capita amount to determine the dollars that follow each student. In 2012, this value was $4,085.30

For example, a middle school student (1.08) who is well below academic standards (0.50) would receive a weight of 1.58 (1.08 + 0.50). In 2012, this student would have brought $6,454.77 to their school ($4,085.30*1.58).

After the student is assigned that dollar amount, where does the money go? Ideally, the moneys would follow the student around the school, directly supporting their education. However, this is not the method of the formula. A major component of the FSF ideology is that once given the funds, individual school principals will be able to divvy up the money to the students. It prioritizes the needs of highly vulnerable students, and funds those needs accordingly.

But, in practice, this is not how it functions. Although the money is allocated according to student needs, the FSF allows it to be spent according to the principal’s discretion. In an ideal world, principals would be free to earmark the funds for the purpose which they were given, whether it be hiring a new special education teacher or improving the English Language Learning (ELL) curriculum. But, schools have real needs outside of the classroom, such as building repairs, overtime pay, and extracurriculars. Also, forcing principals to make these decisions about funding leaves them exposed to the voices of the most influential parents.

The Principal Conundrum

In a recent article on school funding by Sabina Vaught, the scholar analyzed the funding strategies of Jericho Public Schools (JPS), which allocated funds based on student characteristics. Just like in New York City, principals were given final say in how the funding was spent. When one school principal decided to enhance educational equity in her school by moving resources away from well-funded advanced math courses to underfunded and required math courses, she was met with hostility from the primarily White PTA. Vaught found that the students in the ‘lower’ math courses were primarily Black, and that the school budgetarily benefited from their presence (561). Even so, the White parents, whose children held coveted spots in the advanced math course, mobilized their voices to change the principal’s decision. Right here in New York City, White parents also use their voices and privilege to achieve certain ends. At a school diversity meeting in April 2018 in District 3 on the Upper West Side, White parents were up in arms about plans to diversify the schools that they thought would leave less spots for their children. Whenever public schools are held accountable by parents, certain voices will be more influential than others.

It’s not only powerful parents who can influence principals’ funding allocations. In a recent interview on the Miseducation podcast, David Garcia-Rosen outlined how he was stymied by public school bureaucracies when trying to organize athletic extracurriculars for his students at Bronx Academy of Letters. Garcia-Rosen went to the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) asking for a baseball team, but he was denied. In response, Garcia-Rosen and twelve other principals founded the Small Schools Athletic League (SSAL). Unlike the PSAL, whose funding came from the DOE, schools in the SSAL redistributed funds from other areas to cover the costs of fielding teams.

For schools without adequate resources, decisions about programs and spending loom large. This is not the case for schools with an abundance of resources, especially NYC’s specialized high schools. According to FSF, thirteen NYC schools receive an additional $1,000 bonus per student to support higher-level learning, showing that its mission of supporting the neediest students is not enacted in practice. Furthermore, among those specialized schools are Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant, who maintain massive endowments of $13 million, $6 million, and $2.4 million respectively, to help fund extracurricular activities.

If Fair Student Funding is supposed to allow principals to make decisions about school needs, then how are we supposed to judge these schools on an equal playing field? How can we compare a school which is forced to choose between qualified teachers and after school activities with one which boasts alumni networks able to finance the cost of new facilities and programs? This system is fundamentally unfair, and it is most hurtful to students coming from communities which are already marginalized and resource-lacking.

What now?

Unfortunately, this system is not likely to go away anytime soon. The only thing for us to do, as critical and questioning members of society, is to ask whether there is a purpose to putting a dollar sign on a child’s head. One organization those interested in holding government accountable can support is the Alliance for Quality Education, a New York non-profit which lobbies in Albany on behalf of students, families, and communities being short-changed by limited resources. In March 2019, AQENY published a comprehensive report detailing challenges faced by schools all over the state. Crucially, the report details specific needs in individual schools. By focusing on targeted and specific needs like overcrowding and decrepit facilities, AQENY holds government accountable by displaying what is lost when schools are underfunded. Until we we listen to the facts being provided by AQENY and realize that assigning monetary worth to children in schools is harmful and unproductive, those on the margins will never be truly welcomed into our classrooms.