Cuomo's Budget Threatens School Aid Court Order, Say Critics

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Photo by Beth Fertig

More than a decade after the state’s highest court ordered New York lawmakers to spend billions of dollars more a year on schools, Governor Cuomo and his top aides are moving further away from ever fulfilling the order, say critics.   

Following a lawsuit brought the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, in 2006 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that many of the state’s school children were deprived of their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education,” and that billions more dollars needed to be spent on schools per year.

In 2007, then-Governor Eliot Spitzer and the legislature agreed that while the court case was brought by a group of New York City parents, the ruling should apply to all schools in the state. They set up a timetable to gradually increase spending and meet the obligation. Then came the recession and the election of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who scrapped the plan, saying the state’s financial situation was so dire that New York could not afford it.

In recent years, though, Cuomo has been providing more money to schools, including adding another billion dollars in his current budget, something he touted while in Rochester on January 24.

“This is the largest amount of funding in history,” Cuomo told reporters. “The state has never funded education at this high a number.”

The State Board of Regents says school aid needs to be increased by more than twice the amount the governor has proposed, to $2.1 billion dollars, in order to begin to fulfill the court order.

The governor’s budget officials counter that Cuomo has increased spending by over $6 billion dollars since taking office. But the governor’s spending plan also proposes a big change in the way school aid is distributed, by ending what’s known as the foundation aid formula, and potentially replacing it with something new. The major stake holders in education interpret the measure as the Cuomo Administration finally severing any commitment to fulfill the court order.

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, says the proposal pulls the rug out from under the education system.  He says educators thought for the past eleven years that everyone agreed on the same interpretation of the court order, and that it would one day be fulfilled and applied to the entire state.

Kremer says without an agreed-upon means for distributing school aid, it goes back to the old days of back room deals.

“Apparently we’re going to back to, I worry, to this kind of old horse trading, political system where you put a bunch of money on the table,” Kremer said. “And then those with the most power get the most money.”

The pro-school funding group Alliance for Quality Education called it “an unprecedented assault on the education of students of color, students in poverty, and immigrant students.”

Cuomo has not directly addressed the proposed changes to the foundation aid formula. But his deputy secretary for Health and Human Services, Paul Francis, wrote in an op ed in the New York Daily News that the amounts requested by backers of the court order are “made up targets” and calls it a “sham debate.” Ironically, Francis is also former Governor Spitzer’s budget director, and he engineered Spitzer’s campaign promise to settle the court order.    

Assembly Democrats are not giving up on fulfilling the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said it is a priority in his opening speech to members as the legislative session began.

“This year we will advance the goals of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity by setting a timetable to fully phase in foundation aid,” Heastie said, as Democrats cheered.

Heastie has even come up with a way to pay for it, by imposing new, higher, income tax rates on millionaires. Governor Cuomo has already proposed extending a temporary income tax on New Yorkers making one million or more dollars a year. Heastie would like to include new higher tax brackets on those earning $5 million or more, and $10 million or more, up to a 10.32% tax rate on those with incomes of $100 million dollars a year or more. He says those taxes could bring in enough money to fully fund the court order.