It’s not the revolution New York needs, but state Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat, is gathering the kind of information that could lead to a more fair way to collect and distribute education funding.
As the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, she is convening meetings throughout the state to focus on the heart of the inequity, the “foundation aid” formula which is supposed to make sure that every district gets exactly what the name implies, a foundation on which to provide equal education for all.
There are two potential conclusions once she has heard from people around the state. Either the formula will be tweaked yet again or legislators will conclude once they get back to Albany that it needs to be thrown out in favor of a major change to the present system.
Had she started on this quest a year ago, a revolutionary change would have been possible. Democrats who took over the Senate, hold all the high state offices and continue to dominate the Assembly, had the kind of enthusiasm that made radical change possible. Because this is an election year and because many of those in the new Senate majority come from districts that have long been represented by Republicans, a more cautious approach is more likely.
There is another obstacle to radical change, the different ways different parts of the state and different forms of government pay for education. While we think first of property taxes, that is not the case in large cities and those municipalities send a lot of people to both the Senate and Assembly who have very different priorities. They might sympathize with the burdens we bear through the property tax, but they are more interested in making sure that their schools do not lose any funding in any proposed changes.
This region is not represented on the Assembly Education Committee but we have two on the Senate committee, veteran James Seward, a Republican from Milford, and newcomer Jen Metzger, a Democrat from Rosendale. Both are very familiar with the need to do something about high property taxes. Seward is about as cautious as they come, which explains his longevity in Albany. Metzger has shown in her first year that she is both progressive and aggressive, having taken part in or led efforts to change laws concerning the environment, farm labor and other controversial issues.
Together, the two should be able to take the results of these discussions around the state and put them in the context that we need, one that would acknowledge the futility of tinkering with a flawed system and head, instead, in a different direction.
Their goal should be both simple and dramatic — putting an end to using property taxes to fund schools and instead using increased state aid and more progressive and broad-based sources of funding.
That would not be the sales tax, which hits hardest at those least able to pay and which is already among the highest in the nation. No, they need to lead their colleagues toward a reliance on the broad-based income tax to replace the narrow focus of the property tax.