Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's 2010 campaign for governor has been distinguished by an unusual degree of discretion: The candidate does not plan to debate one-on-one against his chief rival, Carl Paladino. He has not held widely publicized press conferences or other events to advance his agenda, and his office is notoriously reluctant to respond to requests for interviews. Most prominently, his team has articulated few specific strategies to achieve the five main goals in Cuomo's policy paper (the campaign refers to it as a "book") "Build a New New York." The goals themselves—fiscal efficiency and ridding Albany of graft and gridlock—are unassailable, but actual, concrete proposals on how to achieve the ends Cuomo desires are not explicit in his campaign materials or his public comments.

Cuomo's five-point plan merely glances at education reform, a startling gloss, given the issue's prominence in Washington, Albany, and at City Hall. It's doubly startling given New York State's second-round Race to the Top win, and the political and financial support Cuomo has drawn from prominent pro-school choice/pro-charter organizations like Democrats for Education Reform. Set against the context of his first run for governor in 2002, when Cuomo championed universal preschool and literacy as vital education efforts, the candidate seems to have shifted his focus away from the classroom to matters economic.

Two weeks before election day, aides to Cuomo said his education policy "book," which would detail education reform policies in specific, was forthcoming. Voters went to the polls with no such report being issued by the campaign.

Improving return on investment

Schools in New York are richly funded, Cuomo says, but earn low marks for achievement. "We are number one in spending in the nation, and number 40 in terms of performance," he stated in the seven-candidate "debate" held on Oct 18th at Hofstra University. To cure the funding excess, he proposes economies of consolidation and management, alleviating unspecified "unfunded mandates," and the imposition of a 2 percent cap on the growth of local property taxes—a restriction that will leave barely enough to meet individual districts' payroll, pension, and healthcare obligations, according to Tim Kremer of the New York State School Boards Association, which represents 700 public-school boards (and thus, about half of New York State's elected officials).   

Cuomo additionally says that competition, school choice and charter schools should spur school improvements, in line with New York's Race to the Top win. But the recent rise in the state's cap on the number of charter schools notwithstanding, the vast majority of students in the state continue to attend traditional public schools, and on those institutions, Cuomo articulates few specific policy goals.

Taking up a theme made popular by city schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Rev. Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, among others, Cuomo asserted at the Hofstra debate that "inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time."

"There are two education systems in this state, one for the rich and one for the poor, and they are both public systems," Cuomo said.

"The way we fund education, through the property tax system, by definition is going to be unfair. And it is." Cuomo said. Because richer districts have more valuable property to tax, they can afford to spend more on their schools and their students than poorer districts like New York State's Big Five urban districts (New York City, Albany, Schenectady, Buffalo and Syracuse). Better-off students enjoy greater resources and historically achieve greater successes, and the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to yawn wide. "The state is supposed to equalize, or come close to equalizing, with its funding," Cuomo added. "That's the CFE [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] lawsuit, which the state is yet to fully fund."

Starting in 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity pressed the state and then-Governor Pataki for sufficient funding to assure that all of New York's public schools meet their legal (and moral) obligation to provide a sound, basic, public education through high school, despite each district's economic status. The resultant legislation, the 2007 State Education Budget and Reform Act, was designed to infuse more than $7 billion into state public schools over four years, of which $3.2 billion would be directed to New York City's neediest students, along with an additional $2.35 billion in foundation aid.

But budget stasis in 2009-10 froze CFE dollars two years into the plan and essentially extended the phase-in of funding from four years to seven, with payments anticipated to resume in the 2011-12 school year.

Additionally, class-size reduction planning integral to the CFE lawsuit has been essentially abandoned by the NYC DOE, with the approval of State Education Commissioner David Steiner, after DOE cited economic constraints. It is not clear if or when class-size reduction efforts will resume.

Questions of equity

Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, says she was "heartened" at Cuomo's mention of the state's obligations to its students. She has been troubled by the recent decision by the state's top education officials, the Regents, to spare school districts from having to pay for legally-mandated academic services for the estimated 300,000 students who now merit extra help, based on this year's recalibrated achievement tests. The Regents voted that districts do not have to provide academic supports to newly needy students – those who would have been judged proficient by last year's scores but fell below proficiency this year. School districts like New York City's, which swore by the tests when scores were sunny, objected to the extra costs to provide those services, given the economic constraints that define their current budgets.

Funding academic intervention is a typical state mandate that could be under review if Cuomo's plans progress. "Even in a period of limited resources, you can prioritize the neediest students, so that the neediest kids are getting the most intensive services," Palast tells City Limits. "We have to find a different way to invest in these kids," whether through School Improvement Grants backed by the Obama administration or other strategies, "and that's what I challenge Cuomo to do."