fresh voices from the front lines of change







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 answer that question, “Yes,” 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 making the issue of equitable education funding front and center.

Actor Cynthia Nixon, known for her role in the HBO 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-litewho withholds public school funding to please large donors.

Nixon's 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 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 and 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 cut school funding as part of a plan to close budget gaps. In his 2012-2013 budget, he increased funding by only 4 percent, ignoring billions made available via Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding, contesting that it was even actually owed. He also imposed new teacher evaluations that linked federal “accountability” money to test scores.

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 increasing per-pupil funding to charter schools.

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. Growing numbers of New Yorkers have been shocked 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.

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 increasing per-pupil funding to charter schools.

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

This week, the Independent Democratic Conference abruptly dissolved, announcing they are rejoining mainline Democrats. Nixon has suggested Cuomo orchestrated the entire Independent Democratic Conference scheme, and is being credited in press accounts for hastening the shake up.

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 Cuomo’s PAC.

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.

Cross-posted from The Progressive.

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