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Advocates say there's money for schools, despite the budget gap

Karen DeWitt
State Sen. Jessica Ramos speaks Tuesday at a news conference in Albany, along with other school funding advocates

There were some emotional moments Tuesday as lawmakers and supporters of a school funding measure rallied at the state Capitol in Albany to advocate for $4 billion they say has long been owed to them under an order by the state’s highest court.

Miriam Aristy-Farer began helping hold fundraisers for the elementary school in her Washington Heights neighborhood when her son was small, and she saw that the district lacked art and music teachers, and special assistance for children with autism.

"The whole year, we start in September, it’s raising money, raising money," she said. "So that our kids can have a normal school year."

She was heartened by a 2007 order from the state’s highest court that said New York  was violating the  constitution by not equally funding the state’s poorest schools, and that the governor and lawmakers needed to spend more on the neediest districts.

Twelve years later, Aristy-Farer has become a school board member and her child is now in high school. But she said the ruling in what’s known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, has still not been carried out. A child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she said she feels betrayed.

"My parents came to this country to give me a better opportunity," she said, her voice cracking. "And it’s heartbreaking that today a child of immigrant who went through the whole process, believed in the American dream has to struggle and fight for the basics in her child’s schools."

Aristy-Farer is the lead plaintiff in a 2014 lawsuit that seeks to force state policymakers to obey the original court order. It’s scheduled for trial later this year.

State Senator Robert Jackson, who was the lead plaintiff in the original Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, said former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007 planned to fulfill the court order, and agreed with the legislature to phase in billions of dollars of additional funding through a formula known as Foundation Aid. But then the recession came, and he said the school funding has never caught up, shortchanging many of the state’s poorest schools. He said New York City schools are owed $1.5 billion dollars, and upstate cities, including the cities of Rochester and Syracuse the 8th and 10th poorest school districts in the nation, are owed tens of millions of dollars.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the court order was a long time ago, and people need to move on.

"These are ghosts of the past," Cuomo said on December 17, 2018. "And distractions from the present."

Cuomo often points out that funding for schools has increased every year that he’s been in office, in budgets agreed to by the governor and legislature. Cuomo has proposed spending just over $300 million more on schools in the new budget. Michael Rebell, the attorney in the CFE case, who now heads the Center for Education Equity at Columbia University, said the amounts are not based on any objective analysis of what the schools really need.

"We’re back to political deal making ," said Rebell who said Cuomo pulled this year’s recommended increase "out of his back pocket."

The push for the funding to fulfill the court order comes at a time when the state’s revenue collections have dropped, and the state has a $2.6 billion deficit.

Sen. Jessica Ramos, who joined the funding advocates, said if equally funding schools is truly a priority, then the money can be found, by shifting spending, or imposing new higher tax brackets on the state’s wealthiest, and raising taxes for part time residents of high end luxury housing.

"Budgets are statements on the value set of a government," Ramos said.

The debate on school funding, and taxes, will likely continue until the end of the month when the state budget is due.

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.