Volume 17 • Issue 27 | Dec. 03 - Dec. 09, 2004

Talking Point

$14 billion for city schools? The Empire State has no money

By Henry J. Stern

What do you write when the major news story of the day is totally ridiculous? It was a little Danish boy, back in 1837, who said: “The emperor has no clothes,” because everyone else was deluded into believing that he was wearing a magnificent suit.

Our chain of events begins with the original lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Eleven years later, the issue of education funding has become a contretemps in which none of the parties has a rational and affordable exit strategy.

When they sued the State of New York back in 1993, the C.F.E. complained that, under the formula the state used to calculate financial aid to local school districts, the city received substantially less assistance per pupil than school districts outside the city. That was true, and C.F.E. had a valid complaint. The reason for this injustice was the political influence of suburban legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who were powerful enough to get more money for their districts. The lawsuit was an effort to use the courts to cure specific legislative discrimination.

The case worked its way through the judicial process for years. As time passed, it morphed from the issue of fairness for New York City into a quest for an educational Eldorado for the entire state. Trial Judge Leland DeGrasse found for the plaintiffs in January 2001, and was reversed by a 4-to-1 vote of the Appellate Division in June 2002. In the appellate court’s opinion, a judge wrote that the state is only responsible for providing an eighth-grade education. In the world we live in today, that statement is absurd. Of course, people have to go to high school to have a decent chance to find meaningful employment. That is, and for years has been, a state responsibility.

In 2003, the Court of Appeals, with a bare minimum of four votes — three Cuomo appointees and one Pataki appointee — held that children were entitled to a “meaningful high school education,” and that the state funding system should be reformed to see that districts were treated equally. The court gave the Legislature a little over a year to work out a new formula and provide adequate resources to the schools.

As one might have expected, the Legislature and the governor did next to nothing before the judicially imposed deadline, July 30, 2004. The case then went back to the trial judge, who in August appointed three senior lawyers, two of them former judges and one a former law school dean, to determine what a “meaningful high school education” should cost.

Tuesday, the Three Wise Men, as they have been called, submitted their report. They want $14 billion more for education, added to the current state budget over four years. The problem is that their report is out of la-la land. There is no $14 billion to add to the budget. The state budget now has a $6 billion deficit. New York State imposes the highest level of taxes of any state in the country. We also spend more per pupil on education than any other state. The Empire State — highest state and local taxes, and highest education spending. And now, add 40% more?

Public officials have spun the report in ways that are most supportive of their positions, their districts and their financial needs. That is reasonable and predictable; they are staking out positions for the negotiations that may or may not take place before the court steps in again.

My contribution to this debate is to say openly and clearly that there is no $14 billion there to spend. It is true that the school system is not educating children as well as we would wish, and in some cases probably failing them entirely. But it is not helpful to throw good money after bad.

Reform the schools, using what is already the largest education budget in America, rather than simply beg for even more money.  Ever heard of value?

The state of New York is necessarily competitive with other states with regards to rates of taxation for individuals and businesses. To raise taxes by the amount demanded in order to comply with this proposal would accelerate the departure from New York of high-taxed individuals and corporations.

High public officials know privately that what I say is true.  They cannot say so publicly, because they don’t want to appear anti-education, or offend the teachers’ lobby, the largest in New York State and the equivalent of the defense industry lobby in Washington. They also want to protect their own constituencies, which means shifting the burden to other taxpayers.

As for the Three Wise Men, I respect them all for their distinguished careers and public service.  However, (1) they have no background in public education, and (2) they are not inclined to jeopardize their reputations and their invitations, carefully nurtured over the years, by a spasm of truth telling, especially on an matter — funding — on which they were not specifically required to report? As for one Wise Man, why should he do anything which would injure the prospects of his son and namesake, a well-regarded public official and future mayoral candidate?

Unfortunately, the masters’ report reflects both inexperience in education and predictable naiveté about matters not within their expertise. But they are devoted, and no worse than any of the other players involved in this long-running charade.

This is the bottom line: you cannot spend money you do not have, nor have any reasonable prospect of getting. In ignoring this basic principle, the trial court, the Court of Appeals, legislative leaders, local officials, and the masters are participating in an exercise of folly that can only end in disappointment.

However, at the rate this case is proceeding, la commedia e non finita. In thirty days, we greet 2005. Remember, the lawsuit began in 1993. Presumably, the great majority of students who were in public schools then have graduated by now. Can we truthfully say that most of them, including our children, did not receive a sound basic education in our public schools?

The separation of powers between the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — is a basic principle of our democratic government. When one branch, with the best of motives, sets itself up as lord and master over the others, we have a problem. That is where we are today.

A last word:  Wait until you see the lawyers’ fees on this one.  The meter is still running, and it will be for years to come.

Henry J. Stern is the director of New York Civic and was City Councilmember at Large from Manhattan from 1974 -1983.

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