Education Spending Cuts “Unconstitutional”?March 19th, 2011
By Brian Backstrom
The fight over state education funding took an acrimonious turn this week as the state budget drew closer to enactment by the legislature. Governor Andrew Cuomo and education spending advocates traded tough words about the impact of the funding cuts in the Governor’s budget, only a fraction of which are proposed to be restored by the state legislature.
The Governor’s budget has been labeled by the spending lobby with all the usual barbs: “slashing programs,” “hurting kids,” doing “permanent damage,” etc. A new line of attack this week from a more serious standpoint, however, came from Michael Rebell, a law professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the plaintiff attorneys on behalf of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in its successful state lawsuit to secure more school aid for New York City.
Prof. Rebell claimed this week in the Daily News that the Governor’s proposed funding cuts, if adopted, “clearly will be violating [NY State’s] constitution.” He asserted that “state aid funding gains in New York City and other high needs districts have achieved since 2007 will be wiped out.”
The professor’s argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Gov. Cuomo and his immediate predecessor, Gov. Paterson, each delayed implementation of a 2007 multi-year school aid deal designed to fulfill the Court of Appeals recommendation to increase state aid to New York City. But, this deal went far beyond what the court’s actual spending figure sought for New York City.
The Court of Appeals in fact sought a middle-ground approach in its mandate for remediation of the funding needs of New York City and its proportionately higher-needs student population by avoiding an outright court order of legislative action. Instead, the court set forth guidelines for the legislature to follow, with a minimal threshold of an additional $1.93 billion in aid for New York City. Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature followed in 2007 with a four-year, $7 billion increase in school aid on a statewide basis that steered a greater percentage of funding toward high-need school districts, more than covering the court’s established threshold for New York City.
Delaying a massive spending increase many times above the court’s spending increase guideline for New York City – or even backing away from it some – does not make such action “unconstitutional.”
As legislative commitments go, this multi-year school aid increase has two limitations: 1) the next annual state budget; and, 2) the revenue to the state’s treasury. Both of these have changed, and thus it is reasonable to expect legislative actions to change in step. Interestingly and importantly, even as state aid increases have slowed or reversed, New York City itself has continued to hike education spending using state, local, and federal resources to the point where City education spending increased by well above $3 billion, about 20 percent higher in the four years since the outcome of the CFE case.
Daily News columnist Bill Hammond was critical of the court’s reasoning throughout the CFE case, but credited it for setting a “very low bar for compliance” for the state. Indeed, the CFE case really should be yesterday’s news since the court’s guideline of nearly $2 billion in funding increases has long since been met; or, as Hammond put it, “case closed.”
Still, the teacher unions and other spend-more organizations such as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity group continue to use the case as a morality play for their agenda of ever-higher spending, virtually ignoring the court’s concomitant concern for improving student skills and “resulting outputs.”
Given the realities of all that has occurred in the past several years, it is silly to behave as the old CFE case remains particularly relevant. Every elected official in state government typically strives to deliver more school aid, with or without CFE, and state politicians are wise to stop indulging the fear-mongering higher-spending crowd. Even New York politicians understand that years of ever-higher spending need a periodic breather, especially when the money simply runs out as it did this year. With all due respect to Professor Rebell, it’s time to move on.
Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.