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Democrats push Cuomo for more school aid

Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton speaks at a press conference.
Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton speaks at a press conference.
Geoff Decker

ALBANY — Before more thorny education issues divide them, lawmakers are presenting a unified front to Gov. Andrew Cuomo over state funding for public schools.

More than 80 Democrats in the state Assembly and Senate from Buffalo to New York City have signed a letter urging Cuomo to increase the state’s education spending by $1.9 billion in the 2014-2015 budget. The amount, which would amount to a 9 percent increase over this year, is far more than Cuomo has signaled he will call for in his budget proposal, which he will unveil to the legislature later this month.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has not championed big funding increases through his first four years in office, instead pressing districts to use their existing allocations more efficiently. The approach came largely as his administration confronted the aftereffects of the 2009 economic recession, which brought a total of $2 billion in state school aid cuts.

Between 2010 and 2012, schools across the state cut 35,000 teachers and staff as a result of the reduced funding, according to the Alliance for Quality Education, which organized a press conference to announce the letter.

And even though the legislature resumed funding increases two years ago, advocates say it hasn’t been enough to keep up with growing classroom costs and local mandates, let alone restore funding to its pre-recession levels. AQE has argued that at least $1.9 billion — the figure legislators called for today — is needed to restore the state to pre-recession funding levels.

In New York City, the recession brought several years of budget cuts, and schools reduced staff, increased class sizes, and trimmed arts and extracurricular programs. But unlike in many districts, no teachers were laid off, despite threats from the Bloomberg administration. Instead, the city assumed responsibility from the state for a larger share of its $24 billion budget to make up for the cuts. (The city got $364 in additional school aid last year, compared to $616 million in 2007.)

The letter’s signees represent a large swath of the state’s public education system, including rural, urban and suburban schools. More than 50 of the lawmakers represent schools in New York City.

Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who chairs the education committee, argued that a surplus that Cuomo recently reported in his mid-year financial projections is evidence enough that the darkest of days are behind public schools in the state and that it’s time to fully restore school budgets.

“We’re not in the same fiscal crisis we were in in 2008, and I think it’s time to move forward on that larger pot,” Nolan said after a press conference with more than a dozen lawmakers who signed the letter.

Cuomo has indicated that he would be willing to increase school aid by about 5 percent, although only a fraction of that would go toward the general pot of funds that Nolan and other prefer. Nolan said the general funds, from which more money goes to poor school districts, is the most fair way to disburse funding in the state.

But it’s also a departure from the way Cuomo has tended to prefer funding education during his first term. Cuomo has embraced competitive grants, including $75 million added to last years budget, that districts can qualify for only if they promise to adopt certain policies or programs. The grants are funding community schools, pre-kindergarten, expanding school days, and merit pay for top-performing teachers.

Nolan said she supported Cuomo’s grants, but not at the expense of less general funding.

“This is about … putting money in the large pot, not so that state ed can pick and choose” which districts they prefer over another, said Nolan, “but that every child in every district get a fair share.”

A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment about the letter.

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