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Hochul's school spending reductions unite Democrats and Republicans in opposition

 Gov. Kathy Hochul presents her 2024 state budget on Jan. 16 at the Capitol.
Mike Groll
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul presents her 2024 state budget on Jan. 16 at the Capitol.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal to direct less money to schools and change how that aid is distributed has been met with almost universal opposition from members of both major political parties.

Hochul wants to lower the inflation factor in what’s known as the state’s foundation aid formula. The formula is used to calculate how much money each of the 700-plus school districts receive each year in the state budget.

Data collected in November estimated the inflation rate at 3.8%, but Hochul’s budget would increase spending to account for inflation by just 2.4%.

The governor also wants to end a longtime provision known as “hold harmless.” It guarantees that no school district would get less in state aid than the previous year.

At her budget presentation, Hochul took a shot at some of the state’s richer schools, saying they are holding millions of dollars in reserves and could use that to make up the difference.

“One would think that could be used to reduce property taxes,” Hochul said on Jan. 16. “But it's still being held in reserves.”

The proposal has angered many in the education community, including the New York State United Teachers union. They accuse Hochul of “backtracking” and of breaking a promise she made two years ago to finally fulfill a 2006 court order that said schools must receive billions more a year to meet the state’s constitutional requirement to fully educate its children.

NYSUT President Melinda Person said the changes Hochul now wants amount to a $400 million cut to schools.

“We've been celebrating the fact that the governor fully funded foundation aid for the last year,” Person said. “And so it's really disappointing to see that we're back again having to have this conversation about insisting that we keep the promise to our schools, to fund schools.”

Person said the union is willing to work on restructuring the foundation aid formula, taking into account lower enrollment due to population changes. But she said schools are still struggling to overcome the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting learning loss among children, and now is not the time for reductions.

“We are not in a recession,” Person said. “These cuts are unnecessary and especially in this moment right now as our schools are taking the next steps to address learning loss and recovering from the pandemic.”

“This is not the time for us to be reneging on the commitment to fund the schools,” she added.

The school aid changes also face stiff opposition from the state legislators who must approve the budget. 

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said ending the “hold harmless” provision would result in reductions to about half of the districts in the state.

“Realistically, when we looked at that, I believe that about 50%, about half, of the school districts in the state will get less money,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think that is obviously difficult.”

Many of those schools are in suburban districts surrounding New York City, which are battlegrounds for key congressional races this year.

The cuts have already become an issue in the race to fill the seat formerly held by George Santos, where the House Republican Congressional Committee is trying to link Hochul’s cuts to Democrat Tom Suozzi, who is seeking to regain that post.

But lawmakers in districts that represent rural schools are also opposed to the change. A group of Republican Assembly members, who are in the minority party in the Legislature, said their schools would suffer.

Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, who is from the town of Ballston in Saratoga County, said the change would “decimate” rural school districts and force them to cut programs that give the students equity with suburban schools.

“(The districts) would no longer be able to have academic vigor or strong academic offerings in their schools because of these significant cuts,” Walsh said. “I think that it's going to impact whether a smaller school is going to be able to offer AP, whether it's going to be able to offer talented and gifted programs.”

On Thursday, Hochul struck back at her critics. She said the reductions are not cuts because the change just lowers the rate of increase that the schools would have received. She said in total, schools are getting $825 million more than they did last year.

“When you don't keep the historic increases in place every year, it is not a cut,” Hochul said. “And that's what they're not understanding.”

The governor said the larger school aid increases of the past two years are not sustainable.

The teachers union, as well as some Democratic lawmakers, say New York should consider higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, if necessary, to fully fund the schools, something Hochul opposes.

Copyright 2024 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.