Published Online: January 26, 2010
Published in Print: January 27, 2010, as N.Y. Bracing for Fresh K-12 Budget Brawl

N.Y. Bracing for Fresh K-12 Budget Brawl

As Fiscal Crisis Continues, Governor's Planned Cuts Spark Local Pushback

New York Gov. David Paterson’s proposed five percent cut in state aid to schools—a reduction of $1.1 billion for the 2011 fiscal year—is likely to face sharp resistance, including from leaders in New York City, which stands to lose up to $469 million.

“The proposed reduction in school aid will affect funding for our city’s students at a time when we are still waiting to receive our just due as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit,” said city Comptroller John Liu.

Gov. Paterson, who rolled out his proposed $134 billion statewide budget last week, said the cuts are part of the tough decisions necessary while the state is facing a $7.4 billion deficit. He says reductions to local government aid are less than 0.5 percent of total city revenues, much less than in many other communities across the state.

But New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the proposal to cut city government funding was “neither proportional nor fair to New York City,” and warned that the actual impact would be more than twice what Mr. Paterson projected in his budget proposal.

Education advocates also criticized the governor’s plan.

“These are the largest education cuts in history,” said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which lobbies for school aid. “His proposal pries open the schoolhouse doors and extracts every dollar from our children’s education that Albany can get its hands on.”

The budget proposal would provide $20.5 billion in aid to elementary and secondary education, down from $21.6 billion in the current fiscal year.

Gov. Paterson also is seeking to reduce spending on higher education. He would cut $95 million from four-year colleges operated by the State University of New York and $48 million from the City University of New York.

The governor, a Democrat who took office in 2008 after his predecessor resigned, said that squandering surpluses and relying on fiscal gimmicks to finance unsustainable spending increases had led to a financial breaking point.

“The era of irresponsibility has ended,” said Mr. Paterson. “We can no longer afford this spending addiction we have had for so long.”

But the legislature is expected to strongly oppose the largest cuts, in part because lawmakers believe that school aid cuts are likely to prompt school boards to raise local property taxes and ax programs. School aid also is among the funding protected by special-interest groups’ influence over lawmakers, all of whom face election this year.

“Though the governor acknowledges our fiscal difficulties, some components of his proposal clearly need modification,” said the Senate majority’s conference leader, John Sampson, also a Democrat. He suggested “structural reforms to state operations,” which could include agency consolidation.

Race to Top

The budget proposal came amid a tumultuous week in which Gov. Paterson and legislative leaders failed to reach a compromise on an expansion of charter schools by an application deadline for the federal Race to the Top grant competition. The New York officials hoped to enhance the state’s chances of winning aid under the $4 billion program.

Funded by the 2009 economic-stimulus law, the Race to the Top will award grants to states for school improvement plans under criteria set by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We are disappointed that we may now miss out on an opportunity to receive unprecedented federal funding for our schools and our children,” Gov. Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg said in a joint statement.

The governor said a cap of 454 school charters was needed to help New York secure that money—considered so crucial that the governor built $750 million in Race to the Top aid into his budget proposal. Even if the state wins a grant, however, that figure exceeds the federal Education Department’s maximum award range for a state of New York’s size.

“I love the confidence—for anyone to assume they’re getting this, that’s a bit of a leap of faith,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when asked about the New York situation during a briefing with reporters about the Race to the Top. “If this money is simply plugging budget holes, that’s not something we are going to be interested in.”

The state has 169 charter schools, with only six charters available for new ones. The current cap is 200. Charter school advocates said the state’s Race to the Top application, as it stands, is stronger without the proposed changes to the law.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing almost 90,000 New York City teachers, said the state missed an opportunity for reforms that would have increased the transparency of charter operations and helped force “profiteers” out.

Vol. 29, Issue 19, Pages 12-13

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