Public education has been a disaster for Andrew Cuomo, and vice versa.
Right from the start of his administration, he's used the wrong tactics, the wrong strategies and the wrong sequences if he had any intention of actually elevating New York's public education system and giving especially stressed urban and rural school districts a much-needed boost.
In two years of nastiness from his bully pulpit, he has derided teachers, their unions, administrators and school boards, and made them out to be barely competent. Yet, with ashes in his mouth, he portrays himself as the state's No. 1 advocate for students. And his tearing apart teachers helps students how, exactly? His favorite statistics, to support his education-bashing, have been that New York pays more per pupil than any other state, yet has a 38 percent graduation rate.
Those statistics are galling because they are highly misleading. New York yearly jockeys with Connecticut and New Jersey for the highest per pupil cost. They are neighboring states, you'll notice, a factor that has a bearing on high costs. The low graduation rate is dictated by New York City, where 140 languages are spoken and that has challenges and hardships completely alien to upstate and Long Island education.
Far more typical is this year's Education Week national ranking of statewide New York public education as the nation's third-best, behind Maryland and Massachusetts. By nearly every meaningful measure, New York is in the top handful in the country, year after year. A far cry from the governor's self-serving propaganda of derision.
Out of the gate, he rode a popular political hobby horse and got passed a 2 percent cap on school taxes. He strutted over that. But he made no progress on what was supposed to be the matching piece — mandate relief — which if it had gone far enough would have made the cap workable for local school districts. In addition, state support of public education, at his direction, is $1.1 billion less today than when he took office.
He justified that by saying repeatedly that the education establishment needed to learn fiscal restraint. It has had its noses rubbed in that, certainly, although statistics show school boards had already begun draconian cuts to proposed school budgets even before Cuomo came on the scene to take credit for it. A couple of years of an alarming number of school budgets defeated by unhappy taxpayers made the point.
The state's 700 school boards have two sources of revenue: state aid and local taxes. So, he's decimated the first and put a ceiling on the second and instilled terror in the hearts of school boards across the state with his bombast. And as a result, by gosh, the governor has been successful in creating the disaster for public education he said was there in the first place, but wasn't.
While 93 percent of school budgets passed last week, which Cuomo ''felt very good about'' and for some reason took credit for, 90 percent of the state budgets relied on reserves — so-called rainy day funds — to keep the total under the new ceiling. Plus, there were additional into-the-bone cuts to teachers, other personnel and programs. The short of it is the quality of New York education is taking a walloping, thanks to Andrew Cuomo. Although you'll notice he isn't taking credit for that.
A growing number of school districts are now out of reserve funds. A local school board member told me that a third of the state's school districts will be insolvent in three years at the present rate. A true crisis looms. What happens then? No one is quite sure, but you can be pretty confident it won't be good for the taxpayer, or for public education.
But even before that hour strikes, look for taxpayer suits against the state for depriving their children of an adequate education, as guaranteed by the state constitution; a ramping up and statewide expansion of the successful Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit down in New York City a few years ago. Incidentally, the state has reneged on half of a court-ordered $4.5 billion settlement in that case.
Which points to yet another, related issue: a widening gap between state funding to needy school districts and wealthier ones. In a Rutgers University study, New York ranked near the bottom in equitable distribution of education funds. That disparity is the equivalent of unequal opportunity. That is wrong, not to mention contrary to the spirit and language of our state constitution, and is going to come back to bite the Cuomo administration in the tail unless there's a dramatic course correction.
So this spring Cuomo appointed a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a fabulous plan, a plan of action for public education in this state that the governor can use to formulate where we go from here.
Never mind that the constitution I keep referring to puts the responsibility for that sort of plan in the hands of the Board of Regents, not the governor. For some reason, wiser heads long ago felt education ought not to be victimized by the whims of political opportunists. Imagine. Still, the governor can appoint a commission if he wants, and even stack it with a predictable cast of characters, as he has.
But wouldn't it have been both sweet and fitting if he had done so before advocating absolutely for a 2 percent tax cap, before making teachers and the state's public school system perpetual objects of ridicule, before putting school boards in the awful position of having to make choices that can only hurt education in their district?
Before inciting the public over supposed shortcomings in our current education system. You know, putting the cart before the hobby horse.
Instead, for reasons that remain a mystery, the governor opted for his version of thoughtful public policy. That is, throwing a hand grenade at a thorny problem, walking away, and seeing who and what survives. He does like the show, I notice.
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