Tax cap has schools between rock and a hard place
One of the most striking segments of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address was the portion on the state’s school children. In a fit of flourishing rhetoric, Cuomo suggested that all the players in educational politics have lobbyists — the teachers have lobbyists, the school boards have lobbyists and even the janitors have lobbyists. However, he said, the students themselves are not represented by anyone. The governor promised to fix that, saying he would take on yet another job, that of lobbyist for the state’s children. Sounds good, right?
Well, let’s take a look and see. Let’s start with the premise that money is a big factor in a successful education. Which kid has a better chance, the one sitting in a room with thirty-five other students or the one sharing the teacher with twenty others? If a child is having a tough time learning to read or needs help with a math problem, do you think a teacher’s aide might be useful if there was enough money to pay one? It is absurd to think that starving a school system will help our children learn.
One might make the case that our newly self-appointed children’s lobbyist, Governor Cuomo, is doing just that. After all, this very same governor has been given great credit for putting a tax cap on local government expenditures. That tax cap has placed the state’s school districts between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Some school districts are facing the choice of cutting millions of dollars from their budgets. If a small city school district finds itself millions of dollars in the red, you can bet more kids will be added to every class and essential programs will be cut. It’s not magic, they have no choice.
When the folks who wrote the New York State Constitution put their master work together they decided to try to take education out of partisan politics. In order to do this they established the New York State Board of Regents. This one policy area was deemed so important that its commissioner would not report to the governor but to a separate board of outside citizens who would be the advocates for the state’s school children. Of course it would be naïve to believe that all politics were removed from the Regents but it certainly was a step in the right direction. The whole idea was to get the traditional grubby politicians out of the game. Of course, the Democrats in the New York State Assembly have been electing the Regents since they have the most votes in the Legislature. By and large, however, the politicians have been smart enough to find and elect Regents who have excellent backgrounds and qualifications.
Right now, Regent Merryl Tisch, a selfless children’s advocate, has been doing a great job running the Board of Regents. An educator herself, Tisch has now been placed in a terrible situation by Cuomo who wants to set up yet another commission to study why our kids aren’t learning. This is equivalent to poking a sharp stick in the eyes of Tisch and the Regents. Let there be no mistake about it — our teachers and school boards care about their students. They advocate for them. They want the state to come up with the money to educate them.
From where I sit, it looks like the teachers and school boards are far greater advocates for children than the politicians who are taking their money away. After the governor’s address, the gutsy Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, said that he thinks the Regents are doing a very good job. As for me, I wonder how the governor can say that he’ll advocate for the kids when he’s the guy whose tax cap will deprive them of the education they need.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/9/12