The state Court of Appeals has ruled that New York must come up with a plan to improve educational opportunities under its constitutional mandate to provide a "sound basic education in its public schools." That's going to require a significant cash infusion from Albany, which is a major problem for a state deep in the red.
The court finding was confined to the New York City school system in response to a lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. But as a practical matter, the court's decision is expected to affect poor districts statewide, and this has led to calls for an additional $2 billion for schools this year, over and above the $14 billion the state is spending on education annually.
The big question is: How does a state facing a deficit of $5 billion to $6 billion come up with the huge number of dollars that the plaintiffs say is needed just for a "down payment" to meet the court order? The question looms even larger when one considers that Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno all are on record against any increase in state taxes in the upcoming budget.
These three men control the purse strings in the state, and with all opposed to imposition of new taxes, coming up with an additional $2 billion or even significantly fewer dollars will not be easy. The governor has a task force trying to come up with some answers, and the imposition of new fees is a certainty. But the dollars needed will take more than fee increases.
One of the possibilities is the reallocation of education aid among the state's many school districts, with the dollars moved to New York City's schools. That proposition most certainly will set off a firestorm throughout the state, as virtually every school district says it needs more dollars even under the current aid formula.
If this proposition wins the day, Buffalo would be severely impacted. Our hard-pressed school district cannot afford to lose any state aid. It already is facing projected budget shortfalls and has laid off teachers, aides and administrators.
The concern is that state officials looking at the amount of aid now given to the Buffalo district could say that it gets more dollars than most other districts in New York, and therefore should be a target for reduction under a reallocation of aid. The area's delegation in both houses of the Legislature must use every device available to keep that from happening. Its consequences would be enormously negative for the city's schools and the City of Buffalo.
I am particularly disturbed by the position taken by Bruno, the state's most powerful Republican legislator. He goes so far as saying that the upcoming state budget doesn't even need to address the demands of the court order. Bruno appears to be hiding his head in the sand, saying that it is conceivable that the state's education funding is already adequate to meet the Court of Appeals ruling. Perhaps he's playing the political game to its fullest before finally changing his tune and reluctantly signing on to increases in fees and even some taxes.
Bruno insists that the court order does not necessarily mean the state has to come up with significant increases in dollars for school aid. It is conceivable, he says, that the money is out there to meet the mandate of the court. Bruno is too intelligent and has been around for too many years to really believe that.
However, if Bruno, the governor and the assembly speaker fail to come up with a plan that the Court of Appeals will buy into, the court can appoint a special master to develop a solution and unilaterally impose it upon the state. One can only hope that good sense will prevail, and the three leaders of state government will compromise their differences and shape a plan that will make good sense and move education forward in the state.
I would be opposed to any plan that applied only to the New York City situation. And I definitely would be opposed to a reallocation of school aid dollars to meet the court mandate while hurting most of the state's school districts. The Legislature must find a way to come up with intelligent answers to meet a court mandate that makes eminent good sense. It won't be easy, but it most assuredly can and must be accomplished.