Educators fear ‘life-shattering’ consequences President’s budget proposal criticized

your nisk logo 10

By Zachary Matson

Gazette Reporter

President Donald Trump’s first federal budget proposal has left New York educators shaking at the thought of deep education funding cuts.

The proposed cuts are widespread and could affect a variety of programs and services at districts across the state, including therapies for special education students, teacher training, after-school programs and grants aimed at improving struggling schools.

“I think there is the potential for catastrophe for the state’s schools and children,” said Bob Lowry of the state Council of Superintendents.

State officials said in a statement May 23 that Trump’s budget proposal would have “life-shattering consequences for New York’s children” and estimated the proposed education cuts would mean a loss of over $433 million in New York programs — which includes college loans.

In New York, federal dollars make up 3.2 percent of school budgets, which has slid in recent years. But much federal money is focused in high-needs districts. In Schenectady, for example, the district counts on about $20 million in federal funding, closer to 10 percent of the district’s overall budget.

“That’s almost all of our after-school programming,” Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said of one of the proposed cuts.

Trump’s budget proposal — which is still subject to the congressional political process and likely represents a worst-case scenario for New York educators — slashes overall federal education spending by over $9 billion, or around 13 percent. Those cuts include wiping out a program that largely funds after-school programs and another program focused on teacher training and reducing class sizes.

“You can be certain that a 13 percent decrease in federal funding will have an impact on those districts that need additional resources,” said Mike Borges, director of the state association for school business officials.

Educators and education watchers have also raised concerns that Medicaid cuts — included in the House-passed health care law and spelled out in Trump’s budget — could threaten payments districts rely on to fund special-education screenings, therapies and other services.

“I think the cuts in Medicaid are going to victimize the most vulnerable members of our population,” Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said.

In Niskayuna, district officials planned for about $250,000 in Medicaid payments next year. Schenectady schools are estimating over $700,000 in Medicaid reimbursements.

Major Medicaid cuts would also threaten to blow a hole in the state budget, risking the progress lawmakers have made in the past few sessions to ramp up education funding. If state lawmakers are forced to cover costs with shrinking Medicaid funds, general cuts to state school aid could be on the table.

“We are 30 percent or so of the state budget,” Lowry said of education aid. “It’s hard for the state to accommodate and eliminate large state deficits while completely sparing 30 percent of its budget.”

Lowry and Borges said they were also worried school-related Medicaid reimbursement might lose out if facing off against doctors, hospitals and elderly patients in a scramble for pieces of a shrinking pie.

Congressional Republicans have proposed curbing Medicaid expenses by giving states set allotments to disburse as deemed necessary rather than paying out reimbursements for a litany of services.

Spring said it remains unclear how potential Medicaid cuts would affect districts. “I have no way of knowing how it would impact school-based services any more or less than other areas,” he said.

And superintendents and education advocates said they are hopeful the political process would temper the downside threat of the Trump budget proposal, pointing to signals from lawmakers who support many of the programs slashed under the proposal.

Trump’s proposal is for the 2018 federal budget, which is set to begin in October. The program funding spelled out in that budget would affect school district budgets for the 2018-2019 school year. And cuts to Medicaid may take even longer to settle on district shoulders.

“There would be time to adjust,” Lowry said. “Also, this is a proposal, just last month Congress got around to approving the [current year’s] budget and they moved in the opposite direction of what the Trump administration proposed on a number of issues.”

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, zmatson@dailygazette.net or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.