The New York Adequacy Study

Across the country, growing disparities between the educational outcomes of affluent high-performing school districts and their lower-income, predominantly minority counterparts have led to a series of lawsuits.  These cases, referred to as "adequacy lawsuits," challenge states' compliance with constitutional mandates to provide an adequate education for all public school students.

In response to mounting political and legal pressures, some states are taking a more proactive approach to strengthening the educational opportunities for all its students. 

But how do state policymakers define an adequate education for a diverse population of students and school districts? More important, how do states use a broadly inclusive process to decide how much an "adequate education" really costs?

In New York, a research team from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Management Analysis and Planning, Inc. (MAP) conducted a comprehensive study to find out what it would cost to provide all New York public school students "a full opportunity to meet the Regents Learning Standards" - academic standards that represent the core of what all New York students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of their schooling.

The study found that in addition to the $31.7 billion that the state spent to educate its students in 2001-02, New York needs to allocate an additional $6.2 to $8.4 billion in funding to ensure an adequate education for all of its students.  New York City schools in particular, with the responsibility for educating 37 percent of the state's student population, would require an additional $4.46 billion. 

The large variation in the $6.2 to $8.4 billion estimate reflects the fact that the methodology the research team used to estimate the cost of an adequate education in New York was not based on purely objective fiscal analysis.

Instead, the team relied on the "professional judgment approach," an interactive analytical process that relied primarily on the input of a carefully selected group of New York educational professionals.   Under the direction of the research team, these professionals helped to determine the services and funding structure needed to meet the overall goals of the adequacy study.

To accomplish this task, the initial stages of the project were devoted to a series of public engagement meetings that gathered educators, taxpayer representatives, parents, legislators, and other stakeholders to share their views on how to achieve "adequacy" in the New York Public Schools.

"The open public engagement meetings were a key part of the research process," explained Dr. Jay Chambers, the AIR Senior Research Fellow who directed the study. "The reality is that determining adequacy is a technical and political process, and maintaining public transparency is an important part of that."

Based on the diverse views of the stakeholders who participated in the public engagement meetings, the research team was able to define the overall outcome standard for the study as the cost of providing all New York students a "full opportunity" to meet the Regents Learning Standards.

Once it established the overall goal of the study, the research team selected a group of "highly qualified" educators to serve on a series of eight professional judgment panels. 

The panels were asked to design "adequate" programs for students living in poverty, English language learners, and students in special education.  Two additional panels were later selected to help define the necessary components of special education programs in more detail. 

In the final stage of the professional judgment process, the research team selected representatives from the first ten judgment panels to revise the overall resource specifications and begin to design a funding formula based on this analysis.

In general, the study showed higher per pupil costs for schools with greater numbers of English language learners and students receiving special education services.  Poverty was shown to have an especially substantial influence on cost.

The next step in the process was to adjust the financing formula for geographic differences - variations in the costs of recruiting and employing comparable personnel across different school districts.

"Based on the composition of student needs, input prices, and the differences in the sizes of each school, we were able to estimate how much an adequate education would cost for every district and school in the State of New York," Chambers said.

While adequacy standards are important, researchers stress that ensuring compliance with these standards is also critical to educational success.

"None of this works without accountability," Chambers said. "While educators alone can't resolve all our social ills, they do need to be held accountable for student performance." 

The study also offered new insight into how states should distribute needed increases in funding allocations through a block grant approach that offers maximum simplicity along with flexibility at the local level.

Although the study was limited to an adequacy analysis for New York State, it also underscored the need for policymakers to begin thinking about consistent national funding standards.

"We have got to start thinking about adequacy at the national level," Chambers noted. "A child's access to education should not depend on the state in which they were born."