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Cuomo, Nixon Differ On School Aid Policy

This is a picture of a school desk
Courtesy of EduBirdie

The Democratic candidates for New York governor, incumbent Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon, have different views on spending money on the state’s schools.

Nixon, an actor who starred in TV’s Sex and the City, first became involved in state politics in 2001, when she began advocating for more funding for New York’ s poorest public schools.  She lobbied at the State Capitol numerous times, including in March 2014, where she slammed Governor Andrew Cuomo for education policies that she said increased inequality, and has led to two separate school systems within the public schools, one for the rich and one for the poor. 

“This is not the Andrew Cuomo I voted for,” said Nixon.

Just a few days ago, Nixon, at a campaign stop in one of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods, continued that argument. New York spends an average of more than $22,000 a year per pupil, among the highest rates in the nation, but Nixon says the money is not divided fairly, and there’s as much a $10,000 gap between the amount spent on students in the state’s wealthiest schools and its poorest districts.  

“What we see is really two systems of education. One in which wealthy white children are given every advantage to succeed, and the assumption is they will be going on to college,” she said. “And in our majority black and brown schools, we have too many kids fed into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Cuomo, in his early years as governor, opposed large increases in school funding, saying that simply spending more money on schools is not the answer.

The governor feuded with the teachers unions over school aid, as well as implementation of the controversial Common Core learning standards, but he has since made up with them. New York State United Teachers union is remaining neutral in the 2018 governor’s race.

In his last couple of state budgets, Cuomo has increased money for schools from the previous year. The governor touted his plan to add $1 billion additional to schools in his spending plan in January 2017, at a stop in Rochester.

“This is the largest amount of funding in history,” Cuomo said at the time.  

But Nixon and other education advocates, including the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy in New York, say state aid should really be increased by double that amount. They argue the money is needed to fulfill a 2006 order by the state’s highest court, brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. That ruling said billions more dollars need to be distributed to the state’s neediest schools to fulfill the state’s constitutional requirement that each child receive a “sound, basic education.”

Cuomo and his budget officials say the court decision applies only to schools in New York City, and that they have already met its requirements.  

In recent months, Cuomo has shifted the argument back to local schools, saying the districts themselves are not dividing the money equally.   

“We spend more money per pupil than any other state. We spend two times the national average. The question is, where does it go and who's getting it?,” Cuomo said at a church in Harlem in late March.

Cuomo won a provision in the current state budget to require school districts to more fully disclose how they will distribute state aid to each of their schools.

The change was already in the works as a requirement of changes in federal education laws. Critics said at the time that the change does not address the root of the state’s school funding problems, and the New York State School Boards Association accused Cuomo of trying to take away local control.  

Nixon proposes increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for the extra funding for schools.

“Voter across New York would agree that millionaires and billionaire could afford to pay a little bit more,” Nixon said in early June. “In order to fully fund our schools.”

Cuomo has backed extending an existing income tax surcharge on millionaires, but has expressed concern that raising taxes further on the wealthy could cause some rich New Yorkers to leave the state.

In an interview on the cable news station New York One, Cuomo, called it a “nonstarter” with Republicans in the legislature, and says advocates for the tax aren’t “dealing with the facts.”

“It’s a great slogan and it polls very high because the only people who are against it are the millionaires and it sounds great, sock it to the rich,” Cuomo said.

In 2011, Governor Cuomo and the legislature enacted a property tax cap that limits schools to tax increases of two percent per year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Nixon supports continuing the cap, saying taxpayers are already overburdened, but says the rules need to be eased so that schools that need to raise more money can do so.

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