If a State of the State address is the poetry of governing, we can only hope that the prose of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget offers more clarity on his plans for public education in New York.
It isn’t just that the ideas the governor offered Wednesday came short on details; that’s not unusual for a speech that tends to be more about vision, broad policy, and, let’s be honest, political self-promotion. It’s that missing, too, was an acknowledgement of the challenges schools continue to face, more than four years after the Great Recession presumably ended.
On what the governor did put forward, we’re certainly encouraged to hear him get behind the idea of universal full-day pre-Kindergarten. How he will pay for it, though, remains to be seen in his budget. Will this important new initiative come by constricting other school funding?
That context is essential. Mr. Cuomo’s answer to the criticism that he is shortchanging schools is that they’ve enjoyed relatively large increases in state aid since he took office. But the reality is that most districts — more than 640 of the 695 in the state — are getting less state aid this year than they did in the 2008-09 school year — $1.3 billion less. Many have cut staff and programs to deal with that and with the 2 percent tax cap Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature have imposed. And now, as part of his tax cut plan, Mr. Cuomo is conditioning a two-year property tax freeze on further cuts and consolidations by districts.
So it’s critical to know how much money schools that have shed teachers and programs will get next year as most of them undertake an expensive new initiative.
Mr. Cuomo also proposes to have voters consider a $2 billion school technology bond act. Again, we look forward to the details of an idea that seems to amount to long-term borrowing for what sounds like an annual operating expense, or a very short-term capital cost. Rather than incur more debt, would it make more sense to stagger this investment over several years in state aid, or use some of the state’s surplus to create a school technology bank through the state’s Office of Technology?
But perhaps the biggest issue in the governor’s speech was what was not in it. While he spoke of how the state is holding teachers more accountable for student performance, he avoided a problem that is to a large degree an outgrowth of that: excessive standardized testing of students. Nor did he weigh in on widespread criticism of the Common Core initiative, whose rapid implementation, many parents and educators say, has demoralized students who were tested on material they hadn’t yet been taught.
What we heard from Mr. Cuomo was a short list of ideas, not a comprehensive vision for public education at a time when students, parents, and educators need leadership of a kind that they can’t get from an education commissioner or a Board of Regents. It takes a governor who, with poetry, paints an inspiring picture of the future, and, with prose, assures them that it isn’t just about pretty words.