Gov. George E. Pataki promised an ambitious educational agenda last week in his final State of the State Address, but he didn’t answer the $5.6 billion education question: Will the state put up the money to end the 13-year-old lawsuit that led to a court ruling that the state is shortchanging New York City public schools?
In his list of educational goals for the year, the third-term Republican governor proclaimed a “commitment to providing additional funding to high-need schools in New York City and across the state.”
But he didn’t say how much money he would propose for that purpose or explain whether it would be enough to provide the $5.6 billion in additional aid ordered by a state judge for the city alone. Mr. Pataki is scheduled to unveil his fiscal 2007 budget on Jan. 17.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, and most legislators, say that the total price tag will rise in any settlement because it would be politically impossible to extend largess to the city but not other districts throughout New York.
While not detailing how he would finance the end to the lawsuit, Mr. Pataki used his 12th State of the State Address to urge lawmakers to pass a myriad of K-12 changes, including those that would give property-tax breaks to senior citizens, add new charter schools, and improve mathematics and science education in the state.
“It is clearly time to realign our educational priorities to meet the ever-changing demands of the 21st century,” he said in the Jan. 4 speech to a joint session of the legislature.
School groups, however, were skeptical about the governor’s commitment to providing the finances that they say high-need schools deserve.
“To fulfill his worthy vision, we hope Governor Pataki will engage, rather than continue to dodge, the obligation to fundamentally reform our school finance system,” Timothy G. Kremer, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said in a statement. “Tinkering with tax rebates and charter schools will not suffice. The current funding system places unfair burdens on localities that lack resources to provide their children adequate access to educational opportunity.”
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the New York City legal-advocacy group representing parents in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, said in a statement that the governor should dedicate the state’s projected $2 billion surplus toward complying with the court orders.
But the lame-duck governor, who decided not to seek a fourth term in next fall’s election, is unlikely to do that or anything else to dramatically increase school spending, said Richard M. Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island, a branch of the City University of New York.
While Mr. Pataki considers a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he’s promoting tax cuts, charter schools, and other issues that appeal to conservative voters.
Other portions of his address highlighted new anti-crime measures—another conservative favorite—and an extended discussion of using alternative fuels such as ethanol, a corn-based gasoline that benefits farmers. Mr. Pataki’s mention of the subject is widely seen as an attempt to lure Iowa voters, who play a large role in determining presidential front-runners because of its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
With national political ambitions playing an important role in Mr. Pataki’s final year in office, large increases in K-12 spending for the state’s urban areas are not playing such a role, Mr. Flanagan said.
“I would imagine that he’s more interested in not embarrassing himself,” Mr. Flanagan said in an interview. “It sounds like a risk-averse strategy. No passing. Use the running game, and wait out the clock.” But legislators will have to address school finances at some point.
In 2003, the New York Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—ruled that the state fails to assure that all students have “the opportunity for a meaningful high school education.” A trial judge last year ordered the state to increase New York City’s annual K-12 budget by $5.6 billion over four years. That would be a 44 percent increase over current spending. (“Judge Orders Billions for Schools in N.Y.C.,” Feb. 23, 2005.)
The state’s appellate court is considering Mr. Pataki’s appeal of the order.
So far, Mr. Pataki has been able to avoid meeting the fiscal demands of the lawsuit by appealing any court decision against the state. Given the short time he has left in office, he’s likely to succeed again with that strategy, Mr. Flanagan said.
“If there’s one thing he’s good at, it is finding a way to leave this for his successor,” he said.