US education department says it will investigate claims of unfairness in NY school funding

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ALBANY, New York — Federal education officials have granted a year-old request from two upstate school districts to investigate whether New York's school aid system shortchanges districts with large minority populations.

In a Nov. 25 letter, the U.S. Department of Education said its Office of Civil Rights will probe the state education department and Board of Regents and the state's funding of schools.

But the agency decided not to include the executive and legislative branches, which actually decide on levels of school aid, as originally requested in a complaint last December by the Schenectady and Middletown districts.

"It's not the lever I wanted, but it's the lever we have," Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said the decision not to review the roles of the Cuomo administration or Legislature.

He said the agency decided it was limited to looking at the institutions that directly get federal education money.

The federal education department declined to comment beyond confirming the investigation and the state department said it wouldn't comment on an ongoing probe.

Spring said it took nearly a year and steady negotiations to get to this point because the investigation is novel and could have national consequences.

"This is something that happens across the country to black school districts," Spring said of funding gaps between rich and poor districts. "Black communities in this country are really being starved and it's not OK for government to look the other way."

The Schenectady district is about 33 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 33 percent white, and the city has high levels of childhood poverty.

Word of the federal investigation comes as advocates for public education and private alternatives like charters schools are at odds over resources and policies that will be written into the upcoming state budget and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken swipes at a public education system he says isn't performing well given the support it gets from the state.

According to the complaint, some affluent districts with predominantly white student bodies are getting more than their fair shares after changes to 2007 reforms intended to address a landmark court ruling that the state failed to adequately fund New York City's schools. The court said all children in the state are constitutionally entitled to a sound, basic education.

The complaint claims the poorer districts are more likely than wealthier to get less than they're entitled to under the state's school aid formula, despite having weaker property tax bases. The result is larger class sizes, pressure to reduce programs, poorer performance and difficulty attracting some of the best teachers.

Critics say the inequity stems from changes Cuomo and the Legislature made in recent years to 2007 legislation that was intended to eliminate the disparities after the state's top court found in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which initially filed a lawsuit against the funding system in 1993.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have defended the way they allocate education funding. Cuomo's office did not respond to emailed request for comment about the federal investigation.

Spring said federal civil rights investigations typically take a year, but this may last longer because it is complicated and unusual. It's also unclear what sanctions might be imposed or if a settlement could be reached during the probe.

At the same time, a lawsuit filed by a coalition of small city school districts challenging the funding system is moving closer to trial.


Follow George M. Walsh on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gmwalshAP

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