In the end, they couldn't get the job done. There's even reason to believe state leaders didn't want to do it. It's easier to defer to the courts than to take on the politically risky challenge of reforming the system of education funding, especially in a state that is already overtaxed.
Gov. George Pataki and state legislators had until July 30 to meet a court-imposed deadline for bringing education funding in line with the state constitution's requirement that New York provide its students with a "sound, basic education." Instead of fixing the problem identified by the court -- the inequitable allocation of state education dollars -- the Legislature last week opted to increase school aid by $555 million over Pataki's proposed $140 million aid hike.
And while that money is welcome, it does nothing to address the court's mandate. What is worse, the court-driven solution is expected to be limited to New York City because the lawsuit that led to the ruling specifically centered on that city.
Now, because state officials couldn't bring themselves to do their jobs -- what could be more important to New Yorkers than fairly funding public education? -- similar lawsuits are likely to be filed by districts upstate, where funding inequities are likely to get worse before they get better.
Education funding has been a public-policy train wreck in this state for years, driven by a "formula" that is part politics and part voodoo. Given a gold-plated opportunity to craft a system that rationalizes funding and, thereby, improves education, the state's elected officials instead turned away, making sure first to blame their political adversaries.
The failure was bipartisan. Neither Democrats nor Republicans presented any plan until early June, only weeks before the deadline. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says Pataki never wanted a solution, preferring to appeal whatever decision the court might impose and dumping the problem at the foot of the next governor. Indeed, the governor's $6.5 billion proposal -- only $2 billion of which was in additional money -- was seriously underfunded.
Yet the Assembly's plan, $6.5 billion in new funding, dodged the significant question of where to find that money, and critics observed that Silver, whose district is in Lower Manhattan, stood to lose politically if he accepted anything less than a court might order. In some ways, he stood only to gain by holding out, blaming Pataki and allowing the court to act.
But it's no way to run a state and, either way, New Yorkers are the losers. They elected legislators and a governor to do a job, and this crew failed, utterly. This is not the first state to allow courts to do the job on reforming education funding -- New Jersey is famous for its recalcitrance -- but understanding the way New York works, it was predictable that it would become the latest.
It's one of the two disgraces described by this failure, and state leaders should be ashamed of themselves. That they demonstrably are not ashamed is the second.