If the governor's State of the State message and executive budget proposal are any signs, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.
The traditional opening salvos of the legislative session in Albany were devoid of the usual diatribes aimed at public education. Instead, the governor took the unprecedented step of introducing NYSUT officers and other labor leaders in the audience and expressed support for hard-working educators.
Credit the strong advocacy of NYSUT members and parents across the state who, for months, have been defending public education and standing up for educators and students against harmful test-and-punish policies.
"The governor's State of the State message is a starting point that sets a positive tone for public education," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "We are committed to having the constructive conversations needed to advance our priorities in education, health care and labor. This is just the beginning."
Though not ideal, the governor's executive budget proposal presents a promising turnaround from past budget plans that imposed harsh cuts in education aid, thrust public education into a negative spotlight and demoralized educators.
In a ringing high note this year, the executive budget proposes $100 million to "transform" state-identified "struggling" schools into community schools — a union-backed concept that would deliver added academic, health, mental health, nutrition, counseling, legal and other services to needy populations.
But, as happens with state budget negotiations, the starting points are far short of what's needed for pre-K–12 and higher education.
"The governor's K–12 state aid proposal begins the essential discussions that must take place about what's needed to provide every student with a quality public education in the wake of the tax cap," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "While he proposes to eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment by 2018, many districts are still owed several years worth of foundation aid. The education tax credit proposal remains problematic. And, we must press to fully fund SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges.
"We look forward to working constructively with the Legislature and the governor over the next two months to produce a fair and equitable budget for next year."
Clearly responding to the outcry in 2015 from NYSUT members, parents and communities, the governor discussed the need to support parents and educators who rejected the failed Common Core implementation. He delegated the momentous task for fixing that failure to the Regents and State Education Department. Noting the high opt-out rate in New York schools, "the education system fails without parent trust," he said.
Here are some key issues NYSUT will fight for in the legislative session:
The governor proposed eliminating by 2018 the GEA, a budget tool that since 2010 has taken money out of school aid to help balance the state budget. His spending plan, which includes that money, would boost school aid by a little more than $2 billion over two years. For 2016–17, next year, the increase of $963 million or 4.1 percent, would be one of the largest school aid starting points in recent years, but that doesn't mean it's adequate.
More school aid is absolutely needed to maintain current services and programs and to provide many needed enhancements. NYSUT calls for an increase of $2.6 billion in general purpose school aid for this coming year. This includes greatly increasing foundation aid, the funding needed to provide a sound, basic education as determined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Foundation aid has not reached CFE levels since the 2008–09 recession. The $2.6 billion also includes eliminating the GEA. Despite recent school aid increases, nearly a third of school districts remain at or below their state aid levels of 2009–10.
FUNDING HIGHER EDUCATION
The executive budget proposes essentially flat funding for SUNY's state-operated campuses and community colleges. The funding plan for CUNY's senior colleges is complicated by a proposal that would shift 30 percent of the funding responsibility to the city of New York. Essentially, it would be a state aid cut of $485 million, on the condition that New York City would pay it. It also assumes the money would fund retroactive salary increases for the PSC and other CUNY labor unions.
The governor vetoed the NYSUT-backed Maintenance of Effort bill that passed both houses last year and would have gone a long way toward filling the gaps in operating funds for public higher education campuses.
NYSUT will again seek changes to the current MOE provision, which is not adequate to prevent campuses from using annual tuition increases — also continued under the executive plan — to simply keep the lights on.
The proposal to keep community college base aid at last year's level, based on a rate per full-time student, amounts to a drastic cut of $10 million for next year due to declining enrollment. The union will work hard to ensure that the state fully funds its higher ed obligations.
The executive budget plan would no longer require employers whose retirees are enrolled in New York State Health Insurance Plans (NYSHIP) to reimburse more than $104.90 for the cost of Part B for those on Medicare. NYSUT believes this will result in additional out-of-pocket costs for retirees and reduction of their health care benefits. It also would fund early detection screening for breast and prostate cancer, and boost funding for HIV/ AIDS care and prevention.
The proposal also would cut the state subsidy to SUNY hospitals by $18.6 million or 21 percent.
The union is strongly urging lawmakers to reject the Medicare reimbursement freeze and to maintain the current language. Support for SUNY hospitals must be restored; communities rely on them for life-saving services, and they train the next generation of the state's medical professionals. NYSUT will press lawmakers to make sure SUNY hospitals are fully funded.
The executive budget proposal zeroes out funding for teacher centers. Teacher centers were funded at $14 million for 2015–16.
NYSUT remains highly committed to teacher centers and requests they be funded at $40 million for 2016–17. For more than 25 years, teacher centers have provided on-going consistently high quality, cost-effective professional development for thousands of educators in our state.
EDUCATION TAX CREDIT
The executive budget proposal includes a back-door school voucher in the form of a tax credit for people who pay private and parochial tuition or make contributions to schools. It would allow wealthy New Yorkers to keep their money out of the tax revenue stream and direct it toward personal priorities.
In total, $70 million would be reserved for corporations and individual taxpayers to receive a tax credit equal to 75 percent of their authorized contributions, up to a maximum annual credit of $1 million. Another $70 million would be set aside to authorize a $500 tax credit for families who pay tuition at private schools.
NYSUT vigorously opposes any tax credit plan that grants vouchers or benefits wealthy donors at the expense of public education. Period.
The executive budget proposal sets aside $1 million to create a study commission to recommend changes to the Constitutional Convention process.
Last fall, the New York State Bar Association released a report requesting the creation of this type of commission in advance of the mandatory 20-year public referendum on the need to hold a state Constitutional Convention, which will appear on the November 2017 ballot.
The Constitutional Convention referendum will overshadow all other decisions citizens will be asked to make in 2017. NYSUT is mounting a strong campaign to educate voters about the real risks a state Constitutional Convention would pose. Opening up the constitution to haphazard and wholesale changes could alter working conditions, our retirement security and our members' ability to provide a sound and basic education. (See separate story.)
The executive budget proposal did not address the tax cap.
Eliminating and amending the undemocratic tax cap continues to be a high priority for NYSUT, which will fight for a true 2 percent cap and for the elimination of the 60 percent supermajority required to exceed it.
If the state had a true 2 percent tax cap — not a 2 percent or less tax cap — schools would have seen $700 million more in local revenue last year. For the 2016–17 school year, the tax levy limit is 0.12 percent.
The executive budget proposal contains provisions NYSUT has long fought for:
- An increase to the state's minimum wage, from $9 to $15 per hour (by 2018 in New York City and by 2021 upstate).
- The DREAM Act would provide undocumented immigrant students access to state financial assistance for college.
- Paid family leave proposal would provide 12 weeks of job-protected, employee-funded leave to care for a sick family member or newborn child. The program would be mandatory for all private employers and optional for public employers through negotiations within the collective bargaining process.
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Visit the NYSUT Member Action Center — mac.nysut.org — to sign up for text alerts, sign petitions, send emails to your legislators and a whole lot more.
Reject tax credit
The governor and the state Senate are once again proposing a tax credit that would benefit private schools and the wealthy. The Parental Choice in Education Act would provide a tax credit equal to 75 percent of authorized contributions to an educational scholarship organization, and give tax credits to families who pay tuition and choose to send their children to private schools.
Send a message to legislators urging them to reject this scheme at mac.nysut.org.