February 2012
January 31, 2012

Tell Albany: Budget falls far too short

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, shown with Steve Allinger, NYSUT's director of legislation, tells lawmakers the proposed budget shortchanges students. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta,
shown with Steve Allinger, NYSUT's director of
legislation, tells lawmakers the proposed budget
shortchanges students.
Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Take this first simple step: Go to www.nysut.org and sign NYSUT's online petition to show your support for public schools and tell lawmakers the proposed budget falls far too short.

"Our students in every school and on every campus will need the energy of every member to convince lawmakers to do the right thing," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said.

The petition is just one way the union is working to send the message that students and educators should not get shortchanged.

Union leaders are working full throttle — providing testimony during budget hearings, mobilizing members for advocacy days, mustering petitions and email campaigns and pro-education rallies — to remind lawmakers and the public about what three years of terrible budgets already have inflicted on elementary and secondary schools and university and community college campuses.

In addition to the online petition, NYSUT this month unveils a new Member Action Center that will give members e-tools to make it easier to reach out to lawmakers. (See separate story on page 8.)

Gov. Cuomo emphasized his budget proposal makes good on the commitment to provide a 4 percent increase — $805 million — in school aid, but in reality the aid comes with strings attached and will provide little relief for schools.

Factor in the impact of the new 2 percent tax cap, which for many districts could really be a zero percent tax cap, and school districts are looking at another year of devastating cuts.

The strings

The governor linked any increase in K-12 education funding to compliance with a new statewide teacher evaluation system. No evaluation plan by 2013, no increase in aid. (See separate story on page 10.) Cuomo also removed $250 million from the proposed $805 million increase to create grants that schools must compete against each other to receive.

"In essence, this turns the ballyhooed 4 percent school aid increase into a 2.9 percent increase," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.

Touting a proposed budget that calls for $20.3 billion in K-12 education spending, the governor also claimed that our schools spend the most but get the least, citing a deceiving statistic that shows a low ranking in graduation rates. (See story on page 12.)

What he fails to say is that education spending increases are mostly due to the additional costs of unfunded mandates.

In reality, total state and local public education spending as a share of personal income and as a share of total state and local revenue has remained relatively constant for decades, according to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. At the same time, the percentage of federal and state funding our schools receive has gone down.

The impact

In the first round of budget hearings before lawmakers, Pallotta reminded elected officials about cuts schools have endured for the past three years and said there is nothing left to cut. "Without significant additional aid, and a reasonable adjustment to the tax cap for costs beyond the control of districts, many schools will continue to lack funding for current programs," Pallotta testified.

At the elementary and secondary levels, class sizes have ballooned. Many after-school programs, music, art, physical education, academic support, counseling services, and pre-K and kindergarten services have been cut. Since 2008, about 30,000 educator positions have been eliminated, including 11,000 last year.

The governor for the second time eliminated all funding for the state's network of teacher centers. The union's advocacy convinced lawmakers to restore $20.4 million in the current budget. The centers provide much-needed professional development. The governor's proposed budget also wants to shift costs for preschool special education to school districts at a time when they can least afford it, essentially putting these programs at serious risk of closing.

Funding for BOCES programs remained level, but last year's cut meant six alternative high school programs in June graduated their last classes.

The outrage

Advocates on all sides of education echo NYSUT's position that the proposed funding levels don't go far enough.

State Education Commissioner John King told lawmakers that a number of districts "risk insolvency." He was particularly concerned about districts that are not able to provide a quality education because they have drastically cut back on academics, including Advanced Placement classes and early education programs.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents also supports the union's arguments. The superintendents claimed "90 percent of all the school districts are getting less state aid than they were three years ago. Leave out Building Aid — reimbursement for capital expenditures — and only two districts are getting as much help from the state as they were in 2008-09."

The state School Boards Association also chimed in with a litany of what's been lost: "Many school districts have already been forced to take drastic measures that they hoped would be temporary in nature. Many districts have closed schools altogether. Reserve funds are depleted. Most school districts have laid off important staff that provide needed programs and services to students. Class sizes have escalated rapidly; kindergarten is threatened, let alone pre-kindergarten programs. Sports, music and art are being slashed to weather the fiscal storm that has lasted for over four years now. In short, the very things that make kids want to go to school are gone."

Zakiyah Ansari, a parent who became so involved with the Alliance for Quality Education she now serves as its advocacy director, told lawmakers how unfair it is to have school districts compete against each other for operating aid all schools need for all children.

"Competition is healthy to train for a race," she said. She asked lawmakers how they could decide which districts get art, music, AP courses, after-school programs and technology, when all students should get them.

No one responded.

Support for higher ed?

While Gov. Cuomo claims his budget proposal "maintains support" for higher education, a closer look suggests otherwise.

The governor's budget proposes flat funding for all three systems, providing no relief to the State University, the City University or the community colleges, which have lost $1.7 billion in state funding since 2008.

Over the last decade, several thousand full-time faculty lines have been cut and class sizes have increased.

"It's been so long since New Yorkers have seen adequate funding for their public colleges and universities that people might not realize just how inadequate this so-called support is," Pallotta said. "Flat funding is not support. Our public higher education has been the ticket to success for so many thousands of New York residents, and people should know how they are being shortchanged."

SUNY hospitals, for example, are suffering greatly by insufficient funding. Their lifesaving programs were put into jeopardy when the governor eliminated all state funding for SUNY hospitals last year, but lawmakers were able to restore $60 million for this year. Flatline funding proposed for the next fiscal year puts the teaching hospitals in Brooklyn, Stony Brook and Syracuse on the brink of insolvency and unable to meet the needs of patients or provide medical education for future doctors, nurses and technicians. (See story on page 17.)

Cuomo's budget proposal points to the NYSUNY 2020 Challenge grant program and a "rational and predictable" tuition plan for each SUNY and CUNY campus as the means to provide support for the systems as well as boost economic development and enhance the reputation of college campuses.

Real support for higher education, NYSUT and other advocates say, means restoration of funding and not dependence on tuition increases.

Tuition hikes come at a time of record unemployment in New York, when families can least afford higher costs for college and when longstanding financial aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, face changes in application criteria that, if enacted, would reduce or outright restrict eligibility for thousands of students, and would make a tuition increase even more difficult.

"Tuition increases should not be a substitute for adequate state funding," Pallotta said.

President Obama in his State of the Union address threatened to reduce federal aid to colleges and universities if they allow tuition increases. "Higher education can't be a luxury — it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford," Obama said.

In New York state, tuition hikes are likely to increase the need for TAP aid across the board.

The $80 million Capital Grants program for the university centers in this year's budget risks leaving other colleges within the SUNY system behind, thus creating a two-tiered "us" versus "them" approach to higher education. The governor's proposal only includes funding for three challenge grants of $20 million each for the rest of SUNY's 60 non-university campuses.

"The SUNY system needs a broad-based and equitable system of state funding, not a limited offering of grants that will establish a distasteful air of competition among the colleges," Pallotta said.

Restore fairness

NYSUT and other community groups are pushing for corporate tax reform — the same kind of reform lawmakers recently approved for personal income taxes to provide much-need revenue.

The union recommends three strategies to restore fairness in the tax code:

  • Compliance with tax laws already on the books would bring in millions. Federal IRS auditors have estimated that real estate investors underpaid $5 billion in federal taxes and $385 million in state taxes because of capital gains that were underreported or misreported.
  • Taxes have been cut repeatedly for corporations. New York has drastically cut the alternate minimum tax for multi-state corporations three times since 1994. Leveling the playing field between large and small businesses by making sure large multinational corporations pay a minimum corporate income tax would generate hundreds of millions.
  • Some businesses pay no taxes. Multi-state corporations pay no taxes on profits in states where they do not have a physical presence. New York should join the 28 other states that have enacted "throw-back" rules to limit this drain on state taxes. This would add untold millions in taxes.

Darryl McGrath contributed to this article.