Sunday, April 15, 2018

School Funding Case Gaining Attention As Cynthia Nixon Primaries Andrew Cuomo

By Jake Jacobs

Should a state with extreme wealth and extreme poverty use public education to even the playing field so all children have an opportunity to improve their conditions?

Many New Yorkers would, and the state’s constitution as interpreted by an appellate court promised a “sound basic education” to all public school students. For decades, however, the rich and powerful have blocked funding to needy schools. The state's current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has been long accused of blocking fair funding for education as he stakes out a “centrist” position that could help raise funds for a potential 2020 presidential run. Last week, New York lawmakers finalized the state’s latest budget package, underfunding the state’s neediest school districts for yet another year.

But a formidable challenger to Cuomo has emerged, and she is trying to bring the issue of equitable education funding front and center.

Actor Cynthia Nixon, known for her role in the HBO TV series Sex and The City, is a
longtime activist for public education, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights. Her children attend public schools, and she has made educational inequity her signature campaign issue, portraying Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, as a Republican-lite who withholds public school funding to please large donors.

“I’ve seen up close the commitment [Nixon] has to public education and giving voice to everyday people,” says Billy Easton, director of the education advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education. Easton explained in a phone call that Ms. Nixon had worked with his organization for sixteen years as a spokesperson, and  “very strongly supports public education that prioritizes the needs of the whole child, focusing on high quality academics, equity, arts and music, social emotional supports, and physical education.”

Nixon has not yet made a dent in early polling, but is already getting far more media attention than Cuomo’s 2014 primary opponent, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who took 36 percent of the vote with only about 2 percent of the funding. Teachout now serves as campaign treasurer for Ms. Nixon.





At the heart of the education funding battle is the language in the law. Dating back to 1894, Article XI, Section 1 of the New York state constitution ordered “the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

In 1982, a landmark
decision by the New York Court of Appeals affirmed all New York students had the right to a “sound, basic education,” although the state was not necessarily responsible for equitable funding. This gave birth to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a 1993 lawsuit contending that New York City schools (which comprise over 40% of students in the entire state) were not getting basic minimums.

The courts
ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1995 and then again in 2001; a New York State Appellate Court upheld an appeal in 2003, charging lawmakers with the task of carrying out the equitable distribution of funds. They did not do so.

In 2005, the court ordered payments of $5.6 billion to New York City schools. This was appealed by then-governor George Pataki, a proponent of charter schools. In 2006, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed the verdict yet again, setting out
specific minimums and formulas to allocate funding dependent on factors like poverty, disability, and language status.

In 2007, lawmakers
started to budget for a portion of the money owed to needy districts across the state. But the rug was pulled out as Wall Street imploded in 2008. Sharp drops in revenue led to freezes and reductions in state funding, followed by teacher layoffs and devastating cuts to counselors, clinicians, arts and sports. An art teacher myself, I was laid off. Cuts also included elimination of electives, kindergarten, repairs, custodial services, and building security.





In 2011, his first year in office, Cuomo reduced taxes on millionaires and billionaires yet cut funding to schools to close “inherited” budget gaps. This represented a major broken campaign promise. In his 2012-2013 budget, he increased funding by only 4 percent, ignoring billions due in Campaign for Fiscal Equity “foundation aid” funding, contesting that it was even actually owed at all. He also imposed performance grants and new teacher evaluations that linked federal “accountability” money to test scores.

The next year, Cuomo got even tougher,
threatening to withhold funding increases to districts who do not use the revised teacher evaluations. But they were challenged in court, deemed to have little scientific validity, with hidden “proprietary” algorithms that violate teachers’ rights to know how their official rankings are computed (in sharp contrast, Ms. Nixon recently tweeted “Time to reverse Cuomo’s obsession with high-stakes testing.”)

After a
botched transition to Common Core standards, Cuomo went largely silent on K-12 education, but continued to block Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding while making increases to per-pupil funding for charter schools.

The
charter school PAC money rolled in as Cuomo shared Koch, Walton family and billionaire private equity donors with the Republicans he was “negotiating” with, illustrating the Albany meaning of “hedge fund”.

In 2015, the majority leaders from both the state Senate and Assembly were convicted on bribery charges
amid a statewide epidemic of corruption. In 2018, Cuomo’s closest aide and confidante, Joe Percoco was convicted on corruption charges.

Albany’s murky machinations have caught the ire of a rising tide of grassroots Trump “resistance” groups who were alarmed to learn their state’s senate has been run for years by a controversial alliance between Republicans and a band of eight “turncoat” Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference.

Nixon timed her campaign launch announcement with the recent revelations of political corruption in Albany under Cuomo’s watch.

Governor Cuomo perennially complains that New York spends more per-pupil than any other U.S. state. This is true, but New York’s funding discrepancy between wealthy and poor districts is also highest in the nation, topping $8,000 per student, and has increased dramatically during Cuomo’s tenure. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s “foundation aid” formula is supposed to correct for this, but Cuomo stands opposed, reticent to hike taxes on the wealthy.

Nixon, on the other hand
calls a millionaire’s tax to raise revenue “a good idea,” and has been calling attention to the exorbitantly high average donations made to pro-Cuomo PACs as she echoes the pledge taken by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders not to take contributions from corporations.

IDC OR NO IDC? This week, the Independent Democratic Conference abruptly announced they are dissolving to rejoin mainline Democrats. Nixon has suggested Cuomo orchestrated the entire Independent Democratic Conference scheme, and she is being credited in press accounts for hastening the IDC shake up. But as we saw in 2014, this deal may be but an election year ruse (Governor Cuomo attended a fundraiser Thursday for the “zombie IDC”, drawing a number of protesters).

There is still solid support for IDC challengers, as evidenced by Bill Lipton, spokesman for the Working Families Party (WFP) who endorsed the challengers weeks ago. The progressive third party narrowly endorsed Cuomo in 2014, but was burned when Cuomo broke a string of promises made in exchange for their support. Today, the WFP endorsed Cynthia Nixon by over 90%.

It’s fitting that one of the IDC’s primary challengers for state senate is Robert Jackson, an 11-year Washington Heights councilman who was the lead plaintiff in the original CFE court case.

Last year, Cuomo and his allies tried to “wipe away” CFE, by legislating funding formula changes that eliminated poverty as a factor, instead measuring enrollment and language status. The measure failed, but did succeed as a time-wasting diversion.

This year, Cuomo’s excuse was that the funding is being mismanaged by everyone else down the line -- by cities and districts - and particularly larger cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, but
most notably, New York City, run by Cuomo’s arch rival, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo’s assertions that New York City and other cities are not equitably allocating education funding led to a new policy passed without any hearings or notice.
Cuomo added new reporting rules into the law, making districts provide school-by-school funding data breakdowns to the governor’s budget director, who assumes amazing new powers to approve or deny the budgets.

New York City says it’s “Fair Funding Formula” has issues, but the problem is Albany’s failure to fully fund CFE and the much greater funding imbalances Governor Cuomo presides over in another 732 school districts across the state. The NY State Education Commissioner Elia says the data will all be made public, so we may learn more, but we already know much of the per-pupil funding being allocated or “spent” doesn’t actually reach the classroom, going instead to testing firms, consultants, a sprawling industry of for-profit curriculum vendors and even private charter school management fees.

Meanwhile, the fight to force Cuomo to equitably fund education continues through the courts. Another case is now moving forward, seeking yet again to enforce the Campaign for Fiscal Equity rulings of 1995, 2003, and 2006. The Small Cities” case, begun in 2008, has sought to extend the constitutional right to “a sound, basic education” to impoverished students in cities around the state other than New York City.  

But if Cynthia Nixon prevails, the issue may well be settled at the ballot box.

A version of this article originally appeared in
The Progressive.

Jake Jacobs is a New York City school teacher and education blogger. He has written for Washington Post, Diane Ravitch’s Blog, AlterNet, the BAT Blog and elsewhere.


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