Editorial: Giving all public school children an equal chance

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Nassau voters are going to the polls in all but Great Neck next week to decide on school budgets and trustee races, some of which have been hotly contested.

This is as it should be given the stakes.

School budgets represent about two-thirds of the property taxes that residents pay, which is to say more than double Nassau County, the Town of North Hempstead and special districts combined.

In fact, the budget for the Great Neck school district, which held its elections a week early this year due to a Jewish holiday, is more than $252 million – more than double the North Hempstead general fund and town outside village fund, which totals $110 million.

This is no anomaly. The budgets of seven other area school districts also exceed North Hempstead’s general fund and outside village fund.

The ranking and perception of school districts are also a primary driver of the value of homes – often the No. 1 asset owned by residents.

The value of two identical homes in two different school districts can vary greatly based on a single factor – the quality of the school district.

And then there are the students.

The schools that children attend will shape the rest of their lives, providing them – or not – with the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the 21st century, determining whether they go to college, which colleges they get into, what jobs they land when they graduate and the people they become.

So no matter the school district, people who sit on school boards and those who run for school boards deserve the thanks of the community for sacrificing their time and effort to help ensure the best outcome for the district’s students.

And on the North Shore, school board members have been doing generally a very good job. Thirteen North Shore schools were among the 20 on Long Island that ranked among the nation’s 1,000 best in a recently released U.S. News and World Report’s annual list.

This is not entirely unexpected. North Shore taxpayers support schools with among the highest cost-per-student in the country. So perhaps this is a matter of getting what we pay for.

We in no way mean to diminish the hard work of school board members or school administration nor even suggest that they work any less hard, but there is one problem with public school education in Nassau County and across the country – it is unfair.

Rather than leveling the playing field, schools in Nassau County tilt the field toward children coming from more affluent families and against those coming from less affluent families, many of whom are Black and brown.

This begins with a reliance on property taxes to finance school districts.

Even with state aid evening the funding difference, Great Neck will spend its $252 million on about 6,600 students – about $37,000 per student – while neighboring Sewanhaka will spend a little more than $216 million on 8,145 students – about $26,000 per student.

Now it is fair to ask if Great Neck, or any other North Shore school district, is getting the best bang for the dollar. Great Neck’s two high schools were ranked third and ninth in Nassau County below school districts that spent less per student. But not as low as Sewanhaka.

It is also fair to question using a cost per student without considering factors such as the number of students attending private schools for which public schools must cover the cost of things like transportation.

For this, we would like schools to develop a report similar to the earnings reports used by businesses that show earnings before interest, taxes and amortizations known as EBITA.

Still, there is no way that using a school version of EBITA would significantly narrow the difference of $10,000 in spending between adjacent public school systems.

And that is without considering the number of English as a second-language students in a district, the ability of parents to provide outside tutors and the time parents have to spend helping their children.

Clearly, public education does not mean equal education in Nassau County.

The state’s so-called tax cap further hampers school districts that spend less per student by requiring districts seeking to exceed a 2 percent increase in property taxes to get 60 percent of the budget vote – rather than the usual 50 percent.

This is to school districts what the filibuster is to the U.S. Senate – an anti-democratic device intended to thwart majority rule.

For a district that spends less per student than a neighboring district, it means eliminating the slim chance it might have of ever getting closer to the district that spends more.

The state should immediately eliminate the tax cap on districts whose spending per student falls below a certain level, say $30,000.

But that would not be enough. The only way to bridge the difference is with state aid.

The state under Gov. Andrew Cuomo has in recent years increased state aid to bridge the gap between districts.

But not enough to get Sewanhaka any closer than $10,000 a student to Great Neck. And some districts, including two on Long Island, have threatened suits saying the state was failing to meet the minimal standard for a decent education under the state Constitution.

The new state budget, passed by a Democratic-controlled state Legislature and approved by a politically weakened Cuomo, does provide additional “foundation” aid to less affluent districts.

Many Nassau residents complain about taxes on Long Island, but not enough to vote against school budgets that account for two-thirds of their tax bills.

This can be explained by the money going to something they value greatly – their children – as well as the children of their neighbors, many of whom are very similar to them in a county among the most segregated in the country.

For this to change, for the system to operate more fairly, taxpayers in higher spending districts would need to treat children in lower spending school districts more like their own children.

 

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