By Lauren Camera and Andrew Ujifusa
As long-time governor of New York state, Mario Cuomo, who died Jan. 1 at the age of 82, made high-profile attempts to investigate and overhaul public schools in New York City and statewide, and he also approved a new scholarship program to make it easier for low- and middle-income students to attend college.
A Democrat who often challenged the conservative vision of government championed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Cuomo served three terms as governor from 1983 to 1994.
Cuomo, the father of current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, led the state through a difficult period of time marked by immense debt and a struggling education system.
While he sought to increase state aid for the state’s education system during his early years as governor and to shift state dollars from relatively wealthy to poor districts, a $6 billion budget shortfall led Cuomo to slash education spending in the early 1990s, including an $891-million school-aid reduction in 1991-1992.
During his time as governor, Cuomo attempted to reshape the state’s education system’s governing structure and its budget.
He pushed to restructure the governance of the New York City’s school system, specifically to overhaul how the board of education is comprised. At the time, two board members were appointed by the mayor, and each of the city’s five borough presidents picked one member—a system adopted when the city schools were decentralized in 1969.
Critics of that system, including Cuomo, charged that the system split responsibility for the school district among too many people to make any of them truly accountable for its widely acknowledged failings.
Later, in his 1994 budget proposal, Cuomo tried—but ultimately failed—to convince the state legislature to pass a new school-finance system that would consolidate 15 state-aid formulas and begin basing payments to local districts more on local income levels than on property wealth.
Cuomo was a vocal opponent of President Ronal Reagan’s tax-reform package, which, among other things, would have eliminated the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes. He argued that the plans would seriously harm the middle class and undermine state efforts to provide crucial services, such as education.
Known for his oratorical skills, one of Cuomo’s most famous speeches attacked President Reagan’s oft-cited description of America as a “shining city on a hill.” Cuomo instead argued instead that the country was made up of the haves and have-nots.
That philosophy guided many of his decisions as governor, including his 1988 State of the State address, in which he called on lawmakers “to make the next 10 years the Decade of the Child.” It was in that speech that he first proposed creating “liberty” scholarships, a landmark legislation to help low- and middle-income students go to college that he signed into law later that year.
In the summer of 1993, in one of his last moves as governor, he appointed a commission with subpoena powers to investigate how education money was being spent in the state. At the time, Cuomo said that although New York’s state and local funding for elementary and secondary education had increased 92 percent over the past 10 years, it “clearly has not resulted in a sufficient improvement in the quality of education provided to our children.’'
Photo: Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, second from left, celebrates with his father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and his mother, Matilda, left, after defeating Republican challenger Rob Astorino on Nov. 4, 2014, in New York. Andrew Cuomo was the first New York Democratic governor since his father to win re-election. Mario Cuomo died Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, the day his son Andrew started his second term as governor. He was 82. Kathy Willens/AP-File