N.Y.’s Spitzer Outlines Broad School Plans

Pre-K expansion, more charters on new governor’s priority list.

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Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York pledged in his first State of the State address to deliver prekindergarten to every 4-year-old by the end of his term, expand the number of charter schools statewide, and provide enough additional school funding to achieve “excellence,” not only “adequacy,” in public education.

Conspicuously missing from his Jan. 3 speech was exactly how much more money Mr. Spitzer plans to spend on K-12 education, particularly in the 1.1 million-student New York City school district, the subject of a court ruling last year that could require the state to spend billions more to pay for public schools in the city.

“With the reforms and accountability we will propose in the coming weeks, and the resources we will commit, there will be no more excuses for failure,” the governor said. “The debate will no longer be about money, but about performance; the goal will no longer be adequacy, but excellence.”

Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat who previously was the state attorney general, was elected in November to succeed Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, who chose not to seek a fourth term.

While Mr. Spitzer didn’t specifically mention the New York City funding decision in his speech to a joint session of the legislature, he said enough about the larger goals of improving education to satisfy New York City’s public school advocates—at least until Jan. 31, when he will submit his first budget outlining how much he proposes to spend on education and other state programs. He’ll have to work with a divided Statehouse, as Democrats kept control of the House and Republicans kept control of the Senate in the November election.

“He really put the bar up pretty high,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Albany, N.Y.-based Alliance for Quality Education, created in 2000 to fight for more school funding statewide. “Even though he didn’t mention a dollar figure, he raised the standard and said he’s going to make a dramatic increase in our investment, targeted to the neediest districts.”

Lawsuit’s Impact

In November, New York’s high court resolved the school funding lawsuit, which dates back to 1993, by ruling that the state needs to spend nearly $2 billion more a year on the New York City schools. Though advocates had wanted a higher price tag, they still claimed victory. ("Aid Award Cut in Suit Over N.Y.C.," Nov. 29, 2006.)

Even though the financial part of the ruling applied only to the city, the New York Court of Appeals, as the highest court is named, emphasized that the state constitution requires the state to provide a “sound basic education”—a standard that could be applied statewide.During his campaign for governor, Mr. Spitzer promised to devote an additional $4 billion to $6 billion per year to New York City schools, and an additional $8.5 billion per year statewide, phased in over four or five years.

Advocates for school funding are confident he’ll make good on those promises.

“Other than listing a specific dollar amount, he addressed 100 percent what we believe in,” said Geri D. Palast, the executive director of the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which sued on behalf of parents, students, and other education advocates. She pointed to the governor’s calls for high-quality pre-K, longer school days, and a transparent school funding formula—all ideas that New York City school supporters want.

In his address, Mr. Spitzer cautioned that additional school funding would come with strings. In addition to a more transparent funding formula, his budget proposal will require that new money be spent on practices that are proven to improve student achievement, including reducing class sizes, lengthening the school day or school year, and creating more after-school programs.

“In exchange for new money, school districts must show where that money is spent and whether it’s getting results—with consequences for failure and rewards for success,” he said.

More Charters

Gov. Spitzer also called for raising the statewide cap on charter schools, which now is 100—a limit reached one year ago, according to the New York Charter School Association. Last year, the state Senate tried, but failed, to raise the charter school cap to 250 statewide, including 50 in New York City.

“Not only must we invest in what we know works today, we must continuously experiment with new approaches,” Mr. Spitzer said. “Charter schools can play a critical role here.”

Proponents of charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely autonomous, cheered that proclamation.

“Public charter schools continue to outperform school districts on state exams … and are in high demand by parents throughout New York state,” Bill Phillips, the president of the charter school association, said in a statement.

Mr. Spitzer tried to temper opposition by pledging “transitional aid” to districts hard-hit by students who leave for such schools.

Many of his education proposals will be expensive when coupled with other proposals in his speech. He wants to provide health care to the state’s 500,000 uninsured children. And his budget will include the first installment of a three-year plan to reduce property taxes, which help pay for schools, by $6 billion. Mr. Spitzer pledged to do that without raising taxes.

In a nod to calls by experts on education and the economy to make American students more able to compete globally, he wants to better prepare students for what he called the “innovation economy” by improving the state’s higher education system.

Mr. Spitzer said he would set up a new Commission on Public Higher Education to recommend policies that would improve the quality of the state’s universities and students’ access to them.

PHOTO: New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer shakes Lt. Gov. Daivd Paterson's hand as the new governor prepares to deliver his State of the State speech.
—Jim McKnight/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 18, Pages 14, 17

Published in Print: January 10, 2007, as N.Y.’s Spitzer Outlines Broad School Plans
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