With a big nudge from NYSUT leaders and members, including office visits, billboards and some 50,000 faxes, lawmakers are on a roll. And students are the big winners.

Calling for more than $1.2 billion in new aid to schools, legislators have approved what would be the largest single-year increase ever for students pre-K-12.

And in what has been called the best higher education budget in a generation, the state's colleges and universities are set to receive more than $1 billion in new aid.

"This budget is a big step toward meeting the needs of public schools and all students, pre-K through post-grad," said New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi. "Lawmakers took an incredible stand for education. Now, let's get it signed."

NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin also praised legislators for a solid higher education plan. "The strength of SUNY, CUNY and community colleges is essential if New York is to provide an affordable, accessible college education to students," Lubin said.

For the second year in a row, legislators have delivered an on-time state budget, approving the plan before the April 1 deadline. Now the budget is in the governor's hands.

Lawmakers hear message

Union leaders praised lawmakers for the spending plan's commitment to public schools and the Legislature's rejection of a backdoor voucher scheme. "Lawmakers heard the message: Public money — tax money — should be used for public education, and NYSUT very much appreciates their grasp of the implications of this issue," Iannuzzi said. NYSUT led a coalition of more than a dozen parent, taxpayer and education groups in a vigorous, statewide, multi-media campaign against the so-called "education tax credit."

Pataki's voucher plan proposed a $500-per-child tax credit for families living in a district with at least one school in need of improvement. Public education coalition leaders argued the voucher would mostly benefit parents with students in private and parochial schools. The Legislature's plan instead calls for a broad-based child tax credit for all income-eligible families of up to $330 for each child between the ages of 4 and 17.

NYSUT's Lubin said every district should see an increase in aid if the budget is signed as amended. Legislators added $450 million to the $650 million education increase proposed by Gov. Pataki.

School districts would receive help in shoring up and replacing old buildings through a new capital construction program lawmakers created. New York City schools would receive $1.8 billion; an additional $800 million would go to high-need districts and the rest of the state's schools on a per-pupil basis.

"Money allocated for school construction would help New York City — and many high-need school districts upstate— build new classrooms and renovate and repair aging buildings," Iannuzzi said.

The capital program addresses, in part, a recent court order in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. In 2003 the state's highest court — the Court of Appeals — ruled in a CFE lawsuit that New York 's system of education funding deprived many children of a "sound, basic education." The state was ordered to provide billions more in education and capital funding to New York City schools.

Programs to support teachers and their professional development would see a boost as well. Teacher centers, which help educators meet requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, would be restored to full funding plus an increase of $6 million.

"These centers are an invaluable resource," said NYSUT Legislative Director Steve Allinger.

Funding to the Albert Shanker grant program for National Board Certification and the state Mentor Teacher-Intern programs would be restored also.

Aid to the state's 37 Boards of Cooperative Educational Services would be increased by more than $58 million.

Legislators rejected several proposals by the governor, including a plan to shift the cost of preschool special ed evaluations to local school districts and a proposal to allow the Division of Budget to distribute $375 million in sound, basic education aid.

Record commitment to higher ed

Funding to SUNY and CUNY was increased by $265 million — with an additional $763 million in capital aid.

"Funding increases to the State University and City University would allow both systems to hire more full-time faculty and improve access to courses for students," Lubin said. More than $47 million was proposed so the two university systems could shore up their faculty lines.

The Legislature rejected the governor's proposal to increase tuition at the university systems and instead added more than $130 million in operating aid support.

Community colleges will realize an increase of $175 per full-time-equivalent student and increases in aid for high-needs programs.

"If this proposed budget represents what is to come, then New York may have turned a corner in higher education funding," Lubin said. "Higher education is what ultimately will fuel upstate's economic resurgence. This is long overdue but much appreciated."

Lawmakers rejected the governor's proposal to privatize the state's teaching hospitals in Syracuse , Brooklyn and Stony Brook. They also rejected changes to the Tuition Assistance Program and restored proposed reductions.

Health care professionals also received a boost. The Patricia McGee Nursing Faculty Scholarship and the Nursing Faculty Loan Forgiveness Incentive programs received $1.8 million in funding. The scholarship is named in honor of former Sen. McGee, R-Cattaraugus, who died last year.

NYSUT leaders are urging lawmakers and unionists to be vigiliant — the fight isn't over. Gov. Pataki still has to sign the record spending plan.

"This budget could be a major victory for all students from pre-K all the way through the university level," Lubin said. "The governor's signature can make it real. He has the opportunity to make a solid investment in our schools and institutions of higher education."