The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating complaints filed by two New York school district superintendents claiming state aid to public schools discriminates against minority, disabled, and non-English speaking students.
Dr. Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown City School District, and Larry Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, filed similar complaints last year against the state of New York, the New York State Legislature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D.), and the state comptroller.
The DOE Office of Civil Rights recently announced it would investigate the superintendents’ claims, but only against the NYS Education Department and the Board of Regents, both of which receive federal assistance.
While the superintendents said it was welcome news, the move fell short of their expectations.
"I am happy that they are investigating, but it’s a small victory," Spring said. He indicated the OCR’s focus on the Board of Regents and the NY State Education Department was only a small victory since they are not "the entities directly responsible for how much aid we get."
"They don’t direct state aid, the governor and the legislature direct the state aid," Spring said.
Spring said the OCR indicated it would not investigate the other parties in the complaint since it has no jurisdictional authority.
The superintendents claim New York school districts with higher concentrations of non-white students are systemically underfunded and that New York State’s current methods for distributing education aid have a discriminatory impact on non-white students and also adversely affects disabled students and English language learners.
Minority students are 10 times as likely to get state aid cut than students living in a district with a majority of white students.
Spring said if the DOJ "fails to come through," to investigate, he plans to file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That complaint would highlight how the lack of state aid to the school system "plays out in the city" that has resulted in such issues as urban blight and increased evictions.
The Schenectady district receives $62 million annually less than it should be receiving in aid, according to Spring. Its currently level of funding is at 54 percent of what it should be, while other school districts are at 83 percent funding.
A 2007 law passed in the state requires aid to schools be computed using the Foundation Aid formula. Foundation Aid has been frozen for several years.
"We are cautiously optimistic and hoping this process will acknowledge the discriminatory practices and change the funding," said Eastwood.
Spring and Eastwood both expressed their frustration with the state’s elected officials.
"I’m extremely disappointed in New York elected officials," Eastwood said, explaining that for over two years he and Spring were "trying to get them to look at these facts and basically they wanted nothing to do with it."
Instead of going through a costly legal battle, the superintendents decided to file complaints with the federal government.
Their case includes evidence they claim shows a disparity in funding to the neediest schools and those with a majority of minority students. Due to the allegedly discriminatory spending, Schenectady schools now have larger class sizes, shortages of textbooks, and a reduced curriculum. The district has had to cut numerous other programs and disabled students have been negatively impacted.
In the Middletown City School District, according to Eastwood, 75 percent are at the poverty level and 80 percent are minority students. The district is only receiving 54 percent of Foundation Aid.
Programs such as after school and summer school programs have been cut due to the lack of funding. It is impacting "high-need kids who need these programs," Eastwood said, "because the district doesn’t have the funds."
"It’s pretty sad, and that’s why the state elected officials didn’t want to face it," Eastwood said. He indicated the school has a "lot of special needs students in our district and they are suffering too."
An interactive map shows how New York distributes aid to the 650 districts, and shows the significant variation in funding to the districts.
The State Supreme Court in Albany will hear the "Small Cities" case, which also focuses on school aid short changes in small city school districts in New York. Parents and children in the Maisto v. State of New York case claim the lack of state school aid is denying students the basic resources needed for a sound education. All eight districts have low property wealth and intense poverty. That trial is expected to begin Dec. 8.