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Gap between LI's rich and poor school districts widening, report says

Students in a ninth-grade algebra class on May

Students in a ninth-grade algebra class on May 1, 2013, at Center Moriches High School. Credit: Heather Walsh

Student achievement in Long Island's public schools, while generally high, reflects a deep and widening gap between the richest and poorest districts, according to a new report issued by the Island's education and business leaders.

The report, "Long Island Education: Costs and Outcomes," cites state figures showing that just 19 percent of eighth-graders in selected poor districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties passed a challenging new test in English Language Arts administered in 2013. In contrast, 57.1 percent of eighth-graders in selected wealthy districts passed the same state test.

The annual student dropout rate, to cite another example from the report, averaged 3.7 percent in the poorer districts -- up 1.5 percentage points from two years earlier. The dropout rate in the wealthier districts was just 0.9 percent, and rose only fractionally during the past two years.

A 3.7 percent annual dropout rate would translate into the loss of 14 percent of an entire student class during that group's four years of high school.

"This gap continues to widen," the report concludes, adding that schools face challenges from state property-tax cap limitations on revenue and from the need to meet challenging new Common Core academic standards. "We have much work to do within a region that is struggling under fiscal distress."

How to address inequities will be among issues debated during the upcoming fight for shares of state school aid among downstate suburbs, New York City and upstate regions. The annual tug-of-war starts Wednesday with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget message.

The "Costs and Outcomes" report was jointly sponsored by the Long Island Education Coalition, which represents school superintendents, teacher unions and other groups, and by the Long Island Association, the region's largest business and civic group.

This year's report, an updated version of previous studies, pointed for the first time to what it describes as a growing gap between richer and poorer districts. The report cites both dropout rates and demographic changes in numbers of students speaking limited English.

The 37-page study has circulated among school leaders in Nassau and Suffolk counties in recent weeks as the region prepares to launch its campaign for additional financial assistance to schools. Newsday obtained an advance copy.

Cuomo's budget message will include proposed revisions of a statewide school-aid package now totaling more than $22 billion. The State Legislature, by law, must adopt a final budget by April 1.

Typically, lawmakers vote for larger aid increases than those proposed by governors. Long Island school representatives, in past campaigns for more state money, have cited earlier "Costs and Outcomes" reports.

The latest report finds that the nine districts identified as among the Island's least wealthy all ranked well below the state's average in income and property wealth.

School leaders on the Island have contended that Albany should concentrate first this year on restoring about $1 billion in statewide aid cut in 2009 and 2010 as the result of the recession and its fallout. The cuts, known as the "Gap Elimination Adjustment," hit schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties especially hard because of the Island's slightly greater-than-average wealth as compared with the rest of state.

"The sooner that money is returned, the better that will be for Long Island's public schools and all schools across the state," said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Lutz supervised revisions in the latest "Costs and Outcomes" report as legislative co-chair for the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

Several state-level groups, including the Board of Regents and the New York State Association of School Business Officials, have recommended a different approach.

These groups have concluded that restoring Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts within a single year would benefit mostly districts of moderate wealth, because the poorer districts already have had most of that money returned.

Consequently, both organizations have recommended restoring adjustment money over two years rather than one, while distributing other aid through the state's foundation formula. That formula is weighted toward districts with large numbers of students who live below the poverty line or have limited English skills, and was enacted in 2007 in response to a successful lawsuit by New York City parents.

"That way, a majority of school districts would benefit," said Michael Borges, executive director of the business officials association.

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