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Education commissioner not happy with governor's school aid numbers

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News File Photo
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia said she’s not pleased with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to spend just half of the amount of new money on public schools that education experts in New York recommend. She spoke Wednesday at a joint legislative budget hearing at the state Capitol.

Elia, along with the State Board of Regents, recommended that New York spend an additional $4 billion over the next three years on the state’s neediest schools, beginning with $1.6 billion more this year.

The amount matches what education funding advocates and many members of the Legislature believe is necessary to fulfill a 12-year-old order from the state’s highest court that said the state was not fulfilling a constitutional mandate to offer every child a “sound basic” education. Cuomo recommended a significantly smaller amount for schools, just under $1 billion, and limited his proposal to just one year.

Elia was reluctant to criticize Cuomo directly and tried to be diplomatic about the differences in the spending recommendations, but she was pressed by freshman Sen. John Liu, a Democrat.

“It’s OK to say you are not happy with the executive budget,” Liu said.

“OK, let me say to you we are not happy, because this is substantially lower than our number,” Elia answered.

“Awesome, good,” Liu said.

Elia does not work directly for the governor; her position is filled by the state Board of Regents. Regents are elected by the state Legislature.

Cuomo has said repeatedly that simply spending more money is not the answer to improving the state’s poorest schools. He also has said in recent speeches that he thinks the court order, which stems from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, has long been settled and that policymakers should move on.

“These are ghosts of the past,” the governor said in a speech on Dec. 17. “And distractions from the present.”

Liu tried to draw Elia out on her views of the governor’s comments.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Liu asked.

But Elia refused to stray from her message. She paused for a moment and then went on to reiterate her support for the aid proposal from her and the Board of Regents over the governor’s plan.

Sen. Robert Jackson, who, like Liu, is also serving his first term as a senator, was one of the plaintiffs in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit in 1993, when he was president of his local community school board in New York City.

During his time to question Elia, he also took issue with the governor’s remarks.

“You know that the state of New York owes our children over $4 billion,” Jackson said. “And the negative impact it’s having on their education and their families by not getting that money.”

It’s become somewhat of a tradition among governors in New York, both Democrats and Republicans, to propose spending less on schools than lawmakers desire. Legislators then add money to their local districts during budget negotiations.

This year is complicated, though, by falling tax revenues. Cuomo announced earlier in the week that the state has a $2.3 billion deficit because of lower-than-anticipated tax collections.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.