Melanie Lawrence of the Long Island Progressive Coalition holds a...

Melanie Lawrence of the Long Island Progressive Coalition holds a press conference, saying Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan would shortchange poor districts. (Feb. 1, 2012) Credit: Photo by Kevin P Coughlin

A war of words over state aid for Long Island's schools escalated Wednesday, with regional critics and supporters of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo clashing over the governor's plans for using much of next year's aid dollars to promote better student performance.

Outside a Wyandanch elementary school, education activists joined with civil rights leaders at a news conference to suggest that Cuomo's plans for distributing an extra $805 million in aid statewide would shortchange poor, mostly minority school districts.

The governor wants to set aside $250 million of the aid money as competitive grants, specifically to reward school districts that improve academic results or operating efficiency.

Representatives of the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide activist group aligned with teacher unions, contended at the news conference that most of the $250 million instead should be distributed according to a state "foundation" formula. The formula, the largest single driver of state assistance to schools, is heavily weighted toward districts with large numbers of students who are poor or speak limited English.

The alliance estimates that Wyandanch, the Island's poorest district, would gain $295,181 in aid under its suggested approach. The largest share of money under that formula would go to New York City, which would receive an extra $91.8 million.

"We're not asking for any handouts," said Melanie Lawrence, education organizer for the alliance's Long Island branch. "We're asking for what is equitable, what is fair."

Cuomo aides in Albany quickly counterpunched, distributing a statement from the Association for a Better Long Island, which supports the governor's call for $250 million in competitive "performance" grants to successful districts. The association, based in Hauppauge, represents major commercial real estate developers.

"For too long the educational establishment has asked for more without demanding . . . improvements in student achievement and graduation rates," said yesterday's statement from Desmond Ryan, the group's executive director.

Many Island education officials contend the state's "foundation" formula doesn't adequately support their districts because it doesn't take account of the region's relatively high living costs and school taxes.

Some key state lawmakers from the region have predicted most of the $250 million in dispute will not be authorized for competitive grants but rather distributed in a manner more favorable for the Island's schools.

"It's important that our schools get their fair share," said state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick). He and Sens. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) recently issued a statement calling Cuomo's plan inadequate.

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