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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Wed, Oct 27, 2010

Fill In The Blanks: Cuomo's Education Plans Short On Detail

By Helen Zelon
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The gubernatorial frontrunner says New York's schools need to save money, improve performance and address inequality. He hasn't been specific about how they're supposed to do that. By Helen Zelon

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's 2010 campaign for governor has been distinguished by an unusual degree of discretion: The candidate does not plan to debate one-on-one against his chief rival, Carl Paladino. He has not held widely publicized press conferences or other events to advance his agenda, and his office is notoriously reluctant to respond to requests for interviews. Most prominently, his team has articulated few specific strategies to achieve the five main goals in Cuomo's policy paper (the campaign refers to it as a "book") "Build a New New York." The goals themselves—fiscal efficiency and ridding Albany of graft and gridlock—are unassailable, but actual, concrete proposals on how to achieve the ends Cuomo desires are not explicit in his campaign materials or his public comments.

Cuomo's five-point plan merely glances at education reform, a startling gloss, given the issue's prominence in Washington, Albany, and at City Hall. It's doubly startling given New York State's second-round Race to the Top win, and the political and financial support Cuomo has drawn from prominent pro-school choice/pro-charter organizations like Democrats for Education Reform. Set against the context of his first run for governor in 2002, when Cuomo championed universal preschool and literacy as vital education efforts, the candidate seems to have shifted his focus away from the classroom to matters economic.

Aides to Cuomo say his education policy "book," which will detail education reform policies in specific, is forthcoming, but the close timing before the election suggests it will have little impact on the campaign.

Improving return on investment

Schools in New York are richly funded, Cuomo says, but earn low marks for achievement. "We are number one in spending in the nation, and number 40 in terms of performance," he stated in the seven-candidate "debate" held on Oct 18th at Hofstra University. To cure the funding excess, he proposes economies of consolidation and management, alleviating unspecified "unfunded mandates," and the imposition of a 2 percent cap on the growth of local property taxes—a restriction that will leave barely enough to meet individual districts' payroll, pension, and healthcare obligations, according to Tim Kremer of the New York State School Boards Association, which represents 700 public-school boards (and thus, about half of New York State's elected officials).

Cuomo additionally says that competition, school choice and charter schools should spur school improvements, in line with New York's Race to the Top win. But the recent rise in the state's cap on the number of charter schools notwithstanding, the vast majority of students in the state continue to attend traditional public schools, and on those institutions, Cuomo articulates few specific policy goals.

Taking up a theme made popular by city schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, among others, Cuomo asserted at the Hofstra debate that "inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time."

"There are two education systems in this state, one for the rich and one for the poor, and they are both public systems," Cuomo said.

"The way we fund education, through the property tax system, by definition is going to be unfair. And it is." Cuomo said. Because richer districts have more valuable property to tax, they can afford to spend more on their schools and their students than poorer districts like New York State's Big Five urban districts (New York City, Albany, Schenectady, Buffalo and Syracuse). Better-off students enjoy greater resources and historically achieve greater successes, and the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to yawn wide. "The state is supposed to equalize, or come close to equalizing, with its funding," Cuomo added. "That's the CFE [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] lawsuit, which the state is yet to fully fund."

Starting in 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity pressed the state and then-Governor Pataki for sufficient funding to assure that all of New York's public schools meet their legal (and moral) obligation to provide a sound, basic, public education through high school, despite each district's economic status. The resultant legislation, the 2007 State Education Budget and Reform Act, was designed to infuse more than $7 billion into state public schools over four years, of which $3.2 billion would be directed to New York City's neediest students, along with an additional $2.35 billion in foundation aid.

But budget stasis in 2009-10 froze CFE dollars two years into the plan and essentially extended the phase-in of funding from four years to seven, with payments anticipated to resume in the 2011-12 school year.

Additionally, class-size reduction planning integral to the CFE lawsuit has been essentially abandoned by the NYC DOE, with the approval of State Education Commissioner David Steiner, after DOE cited economic constraints. It is not clear if or when class-size reduction efforts will resume.

Questions of equity

Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, says she was "heartened" at Cuomo's mention of the state's obligations to its students. She has been troubled by the recent decision by the state's top education officials, the Regents, to spare school districts from having to pay for legally-mandated academic services for the estimated 300,000 students who now merit extra help, based on this year's recalibrated achievement tests. The Regents voted that districts do not have to provide academic supports to newly needy students – those who would have been judged proficient by last year's scores but fell below proficiency this year. School districts like New York City's, which swore by the tests when scores were sunny, objected to the extra costs to provide those services, given the economic constraints that define their current budgets.

Funding academic intervention is a typical state mandate that could be under review if Cuomo's plans progress. "Even in a period of limited resources, you can prioritize the neediest students, so that the neediest kids are getting the most intensive services," Palast tells City Limits. "We have to find a different way to invest in these kids," whether through School Improvement Grants backed by the Obama administration or other strategies, "and that's what I challenge Cuomo to do."

While Cuomo's commitment to equitable funding is welcome, advocates say, it's not clear where the moneys will be found to achieve CFE's legally mandated obligations, which the state has essentially permitted to languish, unmet.

"You do have extra-wealthy districts and extra-poor districts," NYSSBA's Kremer says, citing his group's strong support for CFE's goals. "The state aid should go where it's needed most. It should go to the highest-need districts, and funding should follow the kids" if they move or transfer schools. But economic constraints and political stagnation have led to a "hiatus" in school funding formulas—one that's not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Savings and achievement

Cuomo wants to cap the property taxes that fund the state's schools, while improving school results across the board. Again, how achievement might be raised has not been directly addressed, save for comments on increasing competition and "experimentation." Cuomo has not spoken about teaching and learning in his campaign—"nothing on the school day, the school year, Regents tests, standardized tests, nothing, nothing," laments Kremer—although Cuomo's comments on hot-button labor issues of teachers unions, value-added performance assessment for teachers and other quantitative measures have raised union eyebrows in New York and Albany.

Cuomo proposes cutting taxes as a means to rein in school spending, but some say trimming the tax base will have a negative outcome for the city's poorest students.

Capping taxes "will exacerbate the achievement gap," Karl Corn of the New York State United Teachers says, because "poorer districts would not be able to raise the money they need locally." Instead, the union supports a "circuit-breaker" on taxes, which links taxes to household income to prevent undue hardship on New York state's homeowners, including many of the NYSUT's 600,000 members. (The actual impact of a proposed tax cap would likely be less dramatic in New York City, where property taxes fund only a portion of the city's public schools.)

Some education advocates see a disconnect in politicians' talk about the education issue, between the rhetoric on the policy side--of innovation and quality--and the buzzwords on the budget side: capping, cutting, saving.

"It's a zigzag approach to education reform," says NYSSBA's Kremer. "It's a contradiction we're dealing with. We have this massive reform movement emanating primarily from Washington and from Albany, and yet, we have this funding problem: State aid was cut this year, and was held flat for the last few years, with some huge infusions of federal money directed at specific problems. Race to the Top is a four-year grant; some districts are getting a total of about $30,000 over the four years. They feel like, what did I sign on to here?"

What holds true in small districts pertains to New York City as well: NYC's piece of the Race to the Top pot is expected to top out at $250 to $300 million – a small fraction of the city's $21 billion education budget.

Cuomo's Republican opponent, Carl Paladino, has not made education reform a significant priority in his campaign, but has frequently articulated his strong support for private- and parochial-school vouchers, and for continued growth in the state's charter schools, including residential charters, targeted to the state's poorest students.

Additionally, Gov. Paladino would demand the ouster of all school boards and superintendents who lead districts with high-school graduation rates below 60 percent, and require the full Board of Regents to submit open-dated Letters of Resignation to his office on January 1, 2011, according to his campaign.

Absent endorsements, cautious optimism

"Andrew Cuomo has a long history of support for education, for organized labor, and for the social justice agenda," NYSUT's Corn said. "Yet several of his positions, most notably the property tax cap and his statements about public employees, did not align with the union."

Despite endorsements of Democratic candidates in prior gubernatorial races, the NYSUT did not endorse Cuomo in 2002—and it seems it will not do so in 2010. Cuomo has continued to express his commitment to stripping unions of outsize power and undue influence in Albany.

Dick Riley, a spokesman for the New York City's United Federation of Teachers, said that the UFT does not endorse candidates separately from the state union, but UFT vice President Leo Casey identified "issues with Cuomo"—including diminished funding for education in general as well as potential cuts in pensions and health care—that limit local teachers' support of the Democratic candidate.

Corn is politic about working with Cuomo's office, should he be elected: "There's a great deal of respect for Andrew Cuomo. We look forward to working with and collaborating with him in conversations borne out of respect and a shared agenda—that is, to provide real, meaningful tax relief to overburdened homeowners, and to strengthen our public education system."

For some, the very lack of specifics in Cuomo's discussion of education policy suggests a measure of wiggle room – or the cool mask of a master poker bluff.

"It's one thing to say, we're in economic straights and so, we can't spend more money and we have to have efficiencies," said CFE's Geri Palast. "It's another thing to say that the commitment to CFE has not been fulfilled and we have a two-tier system, and we have to address that."

Cuomo himself was outspoken on the political value of not indulging in too many particulars: In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said, "The reason I resist playing cards now is that I can't play them later," he said. "Right? These are trade-offs."

Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >