Education Emerging as Prominent in NY Budget Talks

The “three men in the room” — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (L) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — at a Veterans and Military Families Summit Thursday in Albany. (Office of the Governor)
The “three men in the room” — Gov. Andrew Cuomo, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (L) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — at a Veterans and Military Families Summit Thursday in Albany. (Office of the Governor)

The budget being negotiated in Albany will establish not only how much state aid school districts will receive, but it also could affect the age many kids start going to school, when they begin standardized tests and even influence whether they go to public or private school.

Education issues are prominent this budget season in the capital, including the prekindergarten debate prompted by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and a tax credit advocated by a consortium of Jewish and Catholic groups. The budget, due April 1 from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature, also could contain provisions affecting charter schools and the new Common Core standards.

“It’s a very unusual year in that there are all these educational issues swirling around at the same time,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which is fighting for more school aid from Albany.

Conference committees on policy areas such as transportation and health will be held by the Senate and Assembly on Thursday. Negotiations behind closed doors among Cuomo and legislative leaders are expected to continue through next week.

Cuomo proposed spending $21.9 billion next year in education, which is annually one of state’s largest expenses. The Senate and Assembly said Thursday they aimed to add $240 million more, though that could change during negotiations.

The perennial battle over education funding has been complemented this year by de Blasio’s push to fund universal citywide pre-K with a tax increase on the wealthy. With Cuomo and Senate Republicans both opposing the tax hike, negotiators are expected to determine instead how much to devote from existing state funds.

Cuomo proposed starting with $100 million statewide, assuming a multiyear rollout, and lawmakers want more. The governor and legislative leaders said they were still negotiating pre-K funding Thursday.

Cuomo has recently been more eager to talk about charter schools, an issue that de Blasio has had to deal with since he decided not to give three charter schools rent-free space in public school buildings. Cuomo has talked about protecting the “charter movement” with a state law and has predicted charters would be one of the most complex issues in the budget.

Despite the crush of education issues, Senate education committee chair John Flanagan did not expect attention to be drawn from core funding issues. He noted that there have been discussions on issues like charter schools for years, but with less notice.

“A lot of these issues are just getting more attention than they did previously,” said Flanagan. The Long Island Republican added that school districts and his conference remain focused on restoring school funding lost during the recession.

Flanagan served on a Cuomo-created panel that looked into the widely criticized rollout of the more rigorous Common Core standards. Flanagan said panel recommendations on banning standardized tests before third grade and student data privacy could possibly make it into the budget.

Also in the mix is the tax credit to help private and public schools that would eventually be worth up to $300 million a year. Cardinal Timothy Dolan made a personal pitch to state leaders Tuesday along with supporters who believe the money for scholarships would help struggling parochial schools. Union opponents contend the tax credit would siphon money from other sources.

State leaders hope to make all their budget decisions during closed-door negotiations in the coming days. Assembly education committee chairwoman Cathy Nolan said she is still hoping that there will be more money for education and a steady stream for pre-K.

“I don’t believe this is the last word that we’ve heard on education,” she told a budget hearing Thursday.

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