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Critics claim Cuomo budget falls short on education spending

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

The New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that many of the state’s schoolchildren were deprived of their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education” and that billions more needed to be spent on schools each year.

In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the state 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 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 in Rochester on Jan. 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 said school aid needs to be increased by $2.1 billion — more than twice the amount the governor has proposed — to begin to fulfill the court order.

The governor’s budget officials counter that Cuomo has increased spending by over $6 billion 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 stakeholders 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 said the proposal pulls the rug out from under the education system. He said educators thought for the past 11 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 said 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 Paul Francis, his deputy secretary for Health and Human Services, 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 was also 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 decision. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said it is a priority during 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. Cuomo already has proposed extending a temporary income tax on New Yorkers making $1 million or more 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 percent tax rate on those with incomes of $100 million a year or more. He said those taxes could bring in enough money to fully fund the court order.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.