Gov. Pataki's commitment to reforming the way the state funds public schools has been suspect ever since he said that providing the equivalent of an eighth-grade education was good enough. Good enough for whom he didn't say, but the people who had sued the state to get more money for shortchanged New York City students weren't buying it.
Neither were the courts. In June, the state's highest court rejected Pataki's low-ball argument and ordered the governor and state legislators to come up with a funding formula that gives New York City students their fair share of the education funds something they haven't received for decades. The court said the new plan had to be done by July 30, 2004.
That's not a lot of time to come up with a solution to a problem that has bedeviled legislators every year. And legislators have not been especially good at meeting deadlines, as the state's perenially late budget attests.
But there it is. This is a court-ordered deadline. Bring all the schools up to par.
In response, the governor has named a commission to study the issue. Study the issue? What's to study? The state has a constitutional obligation to provide every student with an equal opportunity at a meaningful basic education, which is to say, a high school diploma.
But Pataki has again raised doubts about his commitment to this cause by filling his commission with political allies, state officials with no expertise in education (the lottery director and secretary of state?) but who owe their jobs to him, and assorted other individuals from around the state but not many from New York City itself.
In a slap at Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the governor named no one from the mayor's administration or the city school system to the commission. Pataki also left out the state Board of Regents, the state university, parent groups, school boards and, believe it or not, state legislators, even though the court specifically said legislators must change the funding system. Pataki also named no one from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that filed the lawsuit that brought about this historic ruling.
These omissions are inexplicable if the governor is serious about helping schools. If he's not, they make perfect sense. So does his naming the first 16 members of the promised 25-member commission without consulting anyone else, including Bloomberg and state legislative leaders. It suggests a desire by Pataki to control the process and the outcome. That's why Bloomberg and legislators want no part of it.
This is, as the governor said, a historic opportunity to change the state education system so that every schoolchild has the opportunity to receive a sound, basic education. But this is not just a task for a hand-picked governor's commission. Furthermore, this is not just a New York City issue. Most educators and legislators agree that, in bringing New York City schools up to par, the state must improve the situation for all schools that are not adequately funded, without penalizing wealthier districts.
In other words. the new school-funding formula should be a step up for students across the state. Legislators, whose job this really is, must show a stronger commitment to achieving this goal than the governor has thus far. They can demonstrate it by making this one deadline they don't blow.