The Fair Student Funding Formula, used to distribute most of New York City’s education budget to the majority of its public schools, has been criticized for failing to provide enough funds to students who need it most, including those in temporary housing and in the foster care system. A working group has until the end of October to recommend changes.
After a summer marked by protests and a lawsuit fighting $469 million in school funding cuts due to declining enrollment, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) has convened a working group to improve the formula it uses to determine school budgets, with an eye on equity.
The Fair Student Funding Formula, used to distribute most of New York City’s education budget to the majority of its public schools,* has been criticized by educators and advocates for failing to provide enough funds to students who need it most.
The FSF formula follows a weighted pupil-funding model, meaning that in theory, schools receive their respective funds “based on the number of students enrolled at each school and the needs of those students,” according to the DOE’s website. Under the current version, in use since 2007, the majority of school funds are based on enrollment. Each student gets a “weight” of funds that vary depending on their needs, taking into account factors like grade and learning level, English language proficiency, special education services and to an extent, their financial circumstances. The formula also has a weight for portfolio schools, like specialized schools, career or technical schools and transfer high schools.*
But educators and advocates say there are high-need student populations the formula doesn’t account for, including students in temporary housing and in the foster care system. They say that in a city where over 100,000 students were homeless in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Advocates of Children New York, the DOE should adapt its funding formula to better serve that population.
Critics also say there aren’t sufficient accountability measures to ensure principals–who can allocate FSF funds at their discretion–use the weighted funds to serve the students they are intended for.
“I don’t think the current formula does provide the equity that people want to see and hope to see,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said in an interview with City Limits.
A second shot at reforms
The 37 FSF working group members–which include representatives from the city’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), the City Council, the United Federation of Teachers, the DOE and more–are tasked with reviewing and making recommendations relating to the FSF formula “including the categories, types of students, grade levels, and weights within the formula, in order to best meet the needs of students citywide,” according to the DOE. Their report is due Oct. 31.
The FSF working group is the second convened to review school funding in recent years. In 2019, a task force was ordered by law to review the FSF formula, but Mayor Bill de Blasio never released their report or acted on its recommendations. Last spring, independent advocates from that task force spoke up during the public comment period of a Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting to share their research and formula recommendations, which concluded that the existing FSF formula did not provide enough funds to truly serve the city’s many high-need students.
They were able to convince enough PEP members–the equivalent of New York City’s school board–to initially vote against the formula. Even Schools Chancellor David Banks acknowledged the room for improvement, but said that it would not be possible to change the formula in time for the 2022-2023 school year. Instead, Banks successfully urged the PEP to pass the formula as it stood during their next meeting, which it did, with the promise to review and potentially change it during the next academic year–this one.
“The DOE is committed to real and meaningful community engagement on the Fair Student Funding Formula and reviewing any changes suggested by this working group, with the goal of improving the formula where possible to further advance our equity goals,” said DOE Press Secretary Jenna Lyle. Changing weights or adding new weights to the formula is within the scope of the working group, according to a DOE statement.
Jasmine Gripper, co-chair of the working group and executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said they’re looking into increasing the base allocation for all schools, increasing weights for English Language Learners (ELLs) and special education students, as well as adding new weights for high-need populations, like students in temporary housing and the foster care system.
“The formula right now does not have any accounting for students who are in temporary housing or shelters, but in New York City at this point, 1 in 10 students are experiencing homelessness in some way,” Gripper said. “Do we ignore that factor? Or do we put it into the formula? Or is it captured by another poverty weight?”
Under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless students have rights to ensure they receive an adequate education, whatever their housing situation. Students in foster care, however, are not covered by the law.
According to McKinnety-Vento, homeless students have: the right to a free public education, to remain enrolled in the school they attended prior to losing stable housing, to be enrolled in school regardless of documentation status, to free transportation to and from school and the right to receive accommodations for their learning needs, according to the DOE’s website. The federal Department of Education distributes some funding to states to serve homeless students, which are then distributed to school districts via grants. New York City receives $2.5 million from the state’s McKinney-Vento funds annually, which averages out to about $25 per student each year.
City Limits spoke to 10 advocates, educators and impacted people, who all spoke about the need for more funding to serve students in temporary housing and in the foster care system. These populations face education barriers that require additional resources to overcome, they argue, including chronic absenteeism and tardiness caused by transportation barriers, mental health distress, as well as the overlapping and compounding education barriers caused by poverty.
Students in temporary housing are less likely to graduate on time and less likely to perform well on tests. According to 2019 city data, only 29 percent of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 passed the state English Language Arts (ELA) exams. Only 61 percent of students who were homeless graduated high school in four years, and about half of the city’s homeless students suffer chronic absenteeism.
As of the 2020-2021 school year, the DOE says that 8.8 percent of city’s public school students were in temporary housing, which the school system defines as any student without stable housing. This includes students living in shelters, living doubled up at friends’ or relatives’ houses, living at hotels or motels, or living in cars, buses or trains, public spaces or abandoned buildings. As of September 21, there were 19,242 children staying in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters, according to data tracked by City Limits, many of whom attend public schools.
Sheree Gibson, a FSF working group member who was also on the 2019 FSF task force, said students in temporary housing need urgent attention and additional support from the DOE.
“I think we’ve always looked at [student homelessness] as just a few schools but it’s not, it’s a bigger problem,” said Gibson, who is also the Queens’ PEP representative. “We need to start addressing this problem because it’s impacting our schools overall.”
In an emailed statement, the DOE said that it appreciates the advocates who’ve pointed out concerns about the FSF and students in temporary housing and said they’re learning from the issues identified.
“We believe that all students deserve access to the resources they need to be successful, and are looking to examine the working group recommendations, once they have been identified, to implement changes that maintain and strengthen equitable funding for all of our students,” the DOE statement said.
Both Gibson and Gripper say they’re concerned that the working group’s deadline at the end of October may not give them enough time to do all the research necessary to responsibly recommend substantial changes to the formula. The group met for the first time on June 28, two months after the FSF formula was initially rejected by the PEP. They only meet once every two weeks for about an hour.
In a statement, the DOE said it worked with the co-chairs to ensure the meetings were designed to accomplish a significant amount of work in time to inform the formula the DOE goes with next year.
‘Stressed and overwhelmed’
Shams DaBaron, an advocate for housing rights who has experienced homelessness, said he strongly supports adding funding weights for students in temporary housing and students in the foster system. DaBaron experienced both as a child, and lived in various family shelters while raising his own son through graduation.
“The idea of providing additional support in a school setting where a child spends most of their waking time is absolutely essential to combat that negative impact from the homeless experience,” DaBaron said. “The [school] environment has to become a more nurturing environment to offset that horrible homeless experience.”
DaBaron spoke to City Limits at length about the struggles that he and his son faced while attending city public schools without stable housing. DaBaron said homeless students face academic challenges, social instability and mental health distress, and their parents often lack the time and resources required to be as involved in their children’s education.
Advocates who spoke with City Limits mentioned school transportation as one of the biggest challenges that students in temporary housing face. Since shelters are not always located near a family’s original home, they are also often far away from students’ schools. When DaBaron and his son moved from The Bronx to a shelter in Manhattan, it became difficult for his son to get to his school in The Bronx on time. But DaBaron said it was important for his son to remain in the same school he’d been attending instead of transferring to a school closer to their family shelter in Manhattan.
“You might have a family where the child is doing so great in a particular school that they don’t want to move and disrupt the child from that process,” DaBaron said. “The child is already familiar with the teacher. The child has classmates and he’s part of programs.”
DaBaron said that due to communication barriers, it took a while before he was alerted by the school that his son was failing his first period class because he was consistently late. The failing grade was startling for DaBaron, because his son usually did well in school. He had to make accommodations for his son to leave for school an hour earlier in the mornings.
After school, DaBaron said his son wouldn’t have as much time for rest and homework because they had to go to the soup kitchen to get a nutritious meal—an effort, he said, to avoid the food served in shelter. Many city shelter settings, which can include a single hotel room for an entire family, lack kitchens where residents can cook for themselves.
“That is one of the biggest complaints from everybody throughout the entire shelter system, that the food they serve is always horrific,” DaBaron said, adding that he enrolled his son in all the free meal opportunities at school that he could, including extracurriculars that provided food. “We had to find different ways to survive in those situations.”
DaBaron said that while struggling to survive while homeless, it was difficult to understand that the experience was affecting both his and his son’s mental health.
“I couldn’t necessarily process it as being something that was affecting my mental health. I didn’t understand that it was affecting the mental health of my child,” DaBaron said. “It wasn’t until [my son] became older and he became a little more vocal and we were able to communicate more that I realized the mental trauma of that experience was eating at his humanity.”
DaBaron says his adult son is still coping with the trauma, but has moved on to live a productive life.
Dekaila Wilson experienced homelessness before graduating from a District 11 high school in 2018, entering shelter after leaving unsafe housing. Students in temporary housing endure stress at school because they don’t always know where they’ll be sleeping that night, Wilson said, and the imminent danger of housing insecurity distracts them from their classwork.
“As a student facing housing hardships you are stressed out and overwhelmed,” Wilson said. “[They] are way too busy thinking about what’s going on at home to focus on what seems so insignificant at school.”
Aixa Rodriguez, a former middle school teacher now working in a high school, said that she’s worked in schools with high concentrations of homeless students. She says students in temporary housing encounter negative attitudes, humiliation and shame.
“Depending on the age of the kid, it really has an emotional impact,” Rodriguez said. “We’re talking about kids cutting…We’re talking about kids who are doing all types of drugs and kids who fall apart in different ways: emotionally, psychologically, some become bullies, some desperately try to find a way to make some type of money as a survival thing.”
Rodriguez says some of her students spent their time in school making money to help their family by selling snacks to fellow classmates. Like Wilson, Rodriguez says the threat of insecure housing and economic hardship distracts students from academics.
“If you have to help pay to survive, you’re more likely to drop out, you’re more likely to have problems finishing schoolwork,” Rodriguez said. “Some of these kids who can’t focus because they have all kinds of things going on in their life suffer. It becomes a cycle and the kids get blamed for it.”
DaBaron said that apart from making it more difficult for students to focus on their school work, insecure housing and poverty can cause children to make bad choices that seem to solve imminent problems. He thinks the pressure to earn money incentivizes those choices, and that there isn’t enough non-academic support in schools to ensure kids are guided towards positive life choices.
“The instability of being homeless and in shelter without a home of your own can also become a pathway to drugs, violence and delinquent behavior,” DaBaron said. “If there is no support in [schools] beyond teaching academics then we are missing an opportunity to save young people from what could become a pathway to prison.”
Rodriguez said that sometimes students of hers who lived in shelters had nowhere safe to go after school, with parents busy at work and shelters closed for periods of the day for daily cleaning. She says she used to let students stay when they needed to, recognizing that they couldn’t be alone and needed more structured after-school opportunities.
How schools could use the money
DaBaron said when he was homeless as a student, one of his teachers acted as his “guardian angel” by recognizing that DaBaron experienced unique challenges in school and did what they could to make life a little easier for him. He feels he was fortunate to have a teacher that gave him extra care, and thinks all students in temporary housing should have better access to guidance counselors, social workers and in-school resources to make up for what they may not have access to outside of school.
“I could have been one of those kids that was lost to the penal system, but thankfully this faculty really looked out for me,” DaBaron said. “They bought me clothes. They did things like they understood, ‘He’s homeless, he’s coming from a train. Like he slept on a train last night.’ They gave me a safe space where I could go and rest.”
Rodriguez said she’s worked with principals who purchased washing machines for students to do laundry. If the FSF is reconfigured to provide more for schools with homeless students, the extra funding could be used to equip the building with household resources, like washing machines, that students in temporary housing may not have easy access to. She thinks all school gyms should have fully functional showers.
Wilson said investing in school supplies, technology for students, and more nutritious food would be a big help for students in temporary housing.
“Target programs that can serve as many kids as possible: aftercare sports, creative stuff, homework help, something that all kids can benefit from,” Rodriguez said. “That means we need librarians to keep the library of the school open after school so the kids can have a place to do their work with tutoring or whatever is available. Not every school has those funds.”
DaBaron, along with other advocates, called for additional mental health resources in schools to serve homeless students. DaBaron said he would prefer if all schools had a mental health professional who was specifically trained in working with homeless youth.
Rodriguez and DaBaron both mentioned the need to provide parents with direct support.
Caroline Iosso, a spokesperson for the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness and the senior policy associate for Homes for the Homeless, said there has been a big push to add DOE community coordinators into shelter settings.
“We’re really in support of well paid staff both in shelter and in schools to help bridge the coordination needs among students, school administrators, teachers, families and shelter staff,” said Iosso, who also mentioned the need for making it easier for families to contact the DOE’s Office of Pupil Transportation, which handles school transportation coordination, as well as more for targeted academic intervention to help students experiencing homelessness catch up.
But Wilson said the real way to help students in temporary housing is to create more affordable housing so children have homes.
“I believe strongly that the city and Department of Education can collaborate to create some more housing programs to help support families in this situation, especially the families with younger children who this experience will, in time, shape,” Wilson said.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the FSF formula is used to determine funding for all of NYC’s public schools; While this is the case for most schools, the formula is not applied to District 75 and District 79 schools, or charter schools. This story has also been updated to clarify that the formula includes a weight for the city’s transfers schools, not schools with high transfer rates, as originally written. City Limits regrets the error.