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While Cuomo's commitment to equitable funding is welcome, advocates say, it's not clear where the moneys will be found to achieve CFE's legally mandated obligations, which the state has essentially permitted to languish, unmet.   

"You do have extra-wealthy districts and extra-poor districts," NYSSBA's Kremer says, citing his group's strong support for CFE's goals. "The state aid should go where it's needed most. It should go to the highest-need districts, and funding should follow the kids" if they move or transfer schools. But economic constraints and political stagnation have led to a "hiatus" in school funding formulas—one that's not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Savings and achievement

Cuomo wants to cap the property taxes that fund the state's schools, while improving school results across the board. Again, how achievement might be raised has not been directly addressed, save for comments on increasing competition and "experimentation." Cuomo has not spoken about teaching and learning in his campaign—"nothing on the school day, the school year, Regents tests, standardized tests, nothing, nothing," laments Kremer—although Cuomo's comments on hot-button labor issues of teachers unions, value-added performance assessment for teachers and other quantitative measures have raised union eyebrows in New York and Albany.   

Cuomo proposes cutting taxes as a means to rein in school spending, but some say trimming the tax base will have a negative outcome for the city's poorest students.

Capping taxes "will exacerbate the achievement gap," Karl Corn of the New York State United Teachers says, because "poorer districts would not be able to raise the money they need locally." Instead, the union supports a "circuit-breaker" on taxes, which links taxes to household income to prevent undue hardship on New York state's homeowners, including many of the NYSUT's 600,000 members. (The actual impact of a proposed tax cap would likely be less dramatic in New York City, where property taxes fund only a portion of the city's public schools.)

Some education advocates see a disconnect in politicians' talk about the education issue, between the rhetoric on the policy side--of innovation and quality--and the buzzwords on the budget side: capping, cutting, saving.

"It's a zigzag approach to education reform," says NYSSBA's Kremer. "It's a contradiction we're dealing with. We have this massive reform movement emanating primarily from Washington and from Albany, and yet, we have this funding problem: State aid was cut this year, and was held flat for the last few years, with some huge infusions of federal money directed at specific problems. Race to the Top is a four-year grant; some districts are getting a total of about $30,000 over the four years. They feel like, what did I sign on to here?"

What holds true in small districts pertains to New York City as well: NYC's piece of the Race to the Top pot is expected to top out at $250 to $300 million – a small fraction of the city's $21 billion education budget.

Cuomo's Republican opponent, Carl Paladino, has not made education reform a significant priority in his campaign, but has frequently articulated his strong support for private- and parochial-school vouchers, and for continued growth in the state's charter schools, including residential charters, targeted to the state's poorest students.

Additionally, Gov. Paladino would demand the ouster of all school boards and superintendents who lead districts with high-school graduation rates below 60 percent, and require the full Board of Regents to submit open-dated Letters of Resignation to his office on January 1, 2011, according to his campaign.

Absent endorsements, cautious optimism

"Andrew Cuomo has a long history of support for education, for organized labor, and for the social justice agenda," NYSUT's Corn said. "Yet several of his positions, most notably the property tax cap and his statements about public employees, did not align with the union."

Despite endorsements of Democratic candidates in prior gubernatorial races, the NYSUT did not endorse Cuomo in 2002—and it seems it will not do so in 2010. Cuomo has continued to express his commitment to stripping unions of outsize power and undue influence in Albany.

Dick Riley, a spokesman for the New York City's United Federation of Teachers, said that the UFT does not endorse candidates separately from the state union, but UFT vice President Leo Casey identified "issues with Cuomo"—including diminished funding for education in general as well as potential cuts in pensions and health care—that limit local teachers' support of the Democratic candidate.   

Corn is politic about working with Cuomo's office, should he be elected: "There's a great deal of respect for Andrew Cuomo. We look forward to working with and collaborating with him in conversations borne out of respect and a shared agenda—that is, to provide real, meaningful tax relief to overburdened homeowners, and to strengthen our public education system."

For some, the very lack of specifics in Cuomo's discussion of education policy suggests a measure of wiggle room – or the cool mask of a master poker bluff.

"It's one thing to say, we're in economic straights and so, we can't spend more money and we have to have efficiencies," said CFE's Geri Palast. "It's another thing to say that the commitment to CFE has not been fulfilled and we have a two-tier system, and we have to address that."

Cuomo himself was outspoken on the political value of not indulging in too many particulars: In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said, "The reason I resist playing cards now is that I can't play them later," he said. "Right? These are trade-offs."