Federal stimulus money could be transformative for New York City’s public school system. But it’s not clear exactly how much money is coming or when. Education advocates said they are closely watching the state budget, due April 1st, for more clarity.
“The outcome of the state budget negotiations will really determine how much of those federal dollars will make it down to our schools,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that works to address inequities in the school system. “New York City public schools are expected to get a lot of funding from the federal government -- if New York state does not take away or substitute the state funding it already gives to the city.”
Gripper said she doesn’t want to see a repeat of last year, when Governor Andrew Cuomo used education money from the first federal stimulus to pay New York’s annual bill to school districts, and then used the state’s own education contribution to plug unrelated holes in the budget due to declining revenues.
“New York State and Governor Andrew Cuomo chose to balance the budget on the backs of students,” said Gripper.
State Senator John Liu, who also chairs the body’s New York City education committee, said legislators are beating back the governor’s proposal to redirect billions of dollars in state education funds away from schools this year. “We have completely rejected that in the legislature, there will be no supplanting of federal funds, only supplementing,” he said.
Instead, he said the legislature is on track to pass a bill that will include chunks of federal money from the December 2020 and possibly March 2021 stimulus bills, and increased state aid for all school districts, including New York City.
Liu said he anticipates $2.15 billion in federal stimulus funding to be passed on to New York City in this budget. In terms of increased state dollars, Liu said there’s a tentative deal to make good on a 2006 court ruling that said New York violated the rights of students to a sound, basic education. If it goes through, he said that deal could mean $500 million to $600 million more for New York City this year, and $1.5 billion more in the years to come.
Liu said a new millionaire’s tax -- which the governor is trying to avoid -- could help the state maintain the increased funding for schools even after the stimulus dollars run out. “We need a reliable and perpetual stream of revenue, which is why we’re asking the wealthiest New Yorkers to pay more,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is face a fiscal cliff once that short term federal funding ends.”
However, he said, as always, the numbers could change as the April 1st budget deadline approaches. “Nothing's ever final until the singing begins,” he said. “But there is a very firm agreement between the legislature and also with the executive on the school funding.”
Still, the state budget might only include a small fraction of the massive infusion of cash coming from the feds to New York City.
The Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan set aside a whopping $122 billion for school systems across the country. Of that, nearly $9 billion is coming to New York state. This money is then supposed to be passed down to school districts, with a portion also going to private and parochial schools. Based on a funding formula that prioritizes high-poverty schools, budget watchdogs estimate around half of that sum could be allocated to New York City, which would amount to some $4 billion or more.
The U.S. Department of Education has placed some broad parameters on the funding to meet its key goals: to reopen K-12 schools safely and “equitably expand opportunity for students who need it most.” Schools can use the funding to upgrade ventilation and buy personal protective equipment, avoid layoffs, hire nurses and custodians, and expand Wi-Fi, among other things. School systems must spend at least five percent of the cash on learning loss, one percent on summer programs, and one percent on after-school programs.
The federal education department is also encouraging states to use the money to help students hit hardest by COVID-19 “emerge from this pandemic stronger.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, American Rescue Plan funds can be used by school districts “to equitably expand opportunities for students who need the funds most, including students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students with inadequate access to technology.”
Educators, parents and activists have already begun promoting their priorities for how the money should be spent, with some common themes emerging. At a city council hearing last week, multiple groups lobbied for expanded summer school, additional mental health support for students, and smaller class sizes.
The United Federation of Teachers has called for $1 billion to support the creation of special “academic intervention” teams of teachers and social workers at every public school.
Advocates for special education students want more in-person evaluations, tutoring, and literacy help, among other things.
Class Size Matters executive director Leonie Haimson said there has never been a better time to invest in smaller classes -- both to allow social distancing, and to improve instruction for students who missed a year-plus of typical in-person school.
“If New York City children ever needed smaller classes for stronger in-person support, they will need them next year, to make up for the myriad losses they have suffered over the course of the last year and the inherent deficiencies of remote learning,” Haimson said.
She said $1 billion could cover the salaries of about 10,000 new teachers and reduce class size in as many as 40,000 classrooms, since “adding a new teacher lowers class size for all the other students in a school in the same grade or subject.”
Gripper said her group is also mobilizing to make sure New York City directs its full allocation to schools, noting the city cut $700 million from its education budget last year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is due to present his revised budget to the city council for review next month, but he has already announced some preliminary plans for the federal money. Last week, the mayor and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said they will use stimulus funds to expand free preschool for three year olds to districts across the city. They also canceled planned budget cuts to schools with lower than expected enrollment.
Going forward, Gripper said her group wants to make sure there’s public engagement and oversight of how the money is spent. “There is not a rush to spend every dollar,” she said. “The money should be spent with parent and community and stakeholder input. That is absolutely important.”