David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

You can draw a straight line between school funding and the classroom learning experience. Money matters in the quality of education provided to students, who are essential to New York City’s future. And there is no denying that good, well-funded schools are central economic players in the life of every neighborhood.

The New York Legislature last week approved a state budget that included an 11 percent increase in school aid, a cash infusion — some $4.2 billion over the next three years –– that fulfills a decades-long demand by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to boost school aid statewide, with a focus on high-need districts. It also achieves the goals of a 2006 court order requiring more state funding for schools.

The state boost in school spending comes at an important moment: a year into a pandemic that has disproportionately cost low and moderate-income Black, brown and Asian New Yorkers their lives and livelihoods. School closures and remote learning have also disproportionately impacted the poor and children of color. Without immediate action, the setbacks could have long-term costs, both to society and the well-being of our children.

The $212 billion state budget includes aid for homeowners, renters, undocumented immigrants and business owners, as well as new taxes on the rich. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the budget this week. With passage of the measure, the state’s high-earners and corporations – who have benefitted greatly from more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts under the Trump administration — will be required to pay a little more to ensure that New York stays on a path to recovery after the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The increase in school funding probably would not have happened without the one-time infusion of $12.6 billion in direct aid from the federal government, as President Biden directs resources to individuals and families on the lower end of the income scale.

State Senator Robert Jackson, a former Community School Board President and co-founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said he is satisfied that the state is finally fulfilling the terms of the nearly three-decade old lawsuit. “But we have to make sure that the money that is allocated happens. In other words, are we going to have the money (in the budget) next year, and the year after that?”

Jackson said he would like to see the money go to funding Saturday academies and after school programs aimed at getting students back up to speed, as well as reducing class sizes. He said there is also a need for more social workers in schools to deal with the consequences of the pandemic on families and academic achievement.

However, he acknowledged that one of the state budget’s most important programs to support child learning has nothing to do with school funding. It is $2.1 billion in federal funds set aside for tenants who are behind on rent and at risk of eviction. The Harlem lawmaker said keeping a roof over the heads of families with children keeps them in school and protects them from food insecurity and homelessness.

Even more federal help could be on the way. The Biden administration released a $1.5 trillion budget request Friday that seeks substantial additional funding for education, health care, housing and environmental protection. For example, President Biden wants to increase the Education Department’s budget by 40.8 percent to $102.8 billion, which includes an additional $20 billion in grants for high-poverty schools.

All across America, school budgets are growing to counter the pandemic. That is not a coincidence. Schools are one of the most inexpensive yet effective ways to build and rebuild community. Education has always been an escalator to opportunity. School spending represents a powerful tool against economic inequality and institutional racism. And as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, school spending also zeroes in on the needs of working mothers, who have been forced out of the labor market at an alarming rate.

The pandemic upended almost every aspect of school and turned on its ear the basic ideas about classroom instruction, the role of technology and how face-to-face human contact binds it together. Some of the changes are bound to stay. Remote learning, for instance, may work for teenagers who have jobs or children with certain medical conditions. A study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, found about two in 10 school systems were adopting virtual schools, or were planning or considering the idea.

All the changes mean schools need more than train loads of dollars. They need oversight and reforms. Pouring money into a broken or disjointed system is not a smart long-term solution. We need accountability and fresh ideas from the NYC Department of Education on what schools could look like.

Most importantly, as Senator Jackson cautioned, we must also be on the lookout for a repeat of 2007, when – during the Great Recession – the New York Legislature canceled its commitment to the financial obligations set out in the 1993 lawsuit.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.