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Cuomo goes on offensive in education fight

Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his budget message at

Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his budget message at St. Joseph's College's McGann Conference Center. (Feb. 23, 2011) Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is waging an aggressive, strategic campaign to push through his proposal to cut $1.5 billion in education spending.

The governor is counterattacking educators' arguments that the reductions would decimate schools. His quick responses are intended to keep opponents from gaining any traction and avoid mistakes other governors have made: allowing complaints to build and derail spending plans.

 

Running policy as campaign

Cuomo's issued reports showing that more than four out of five Long Island school districts are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in reserve funds - more than enough to offset the cuts. He's raised the issue of how much teachers contribute to their health insurance and suggested they pay more. He's cast doubt on superintendents' pay, and proposed capping it at levels less than his. And he's gone out of his way to praise local schools that have promised pay freezes in reaction to his budget proposal.

"It is clear that the governor and his staff are not going to let criticism of their policy, their budget to stand unanswered," said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster. "They are running this the way you run a political campaign. In a political campaign, you don't let a charge stand against you because, if you do, it becomes a reality. So what you see is [Cuomo] firing back."

Other experts pose another theory: Cuomo is rolling out hot-button issues as part of a tactical strategy to engage legislators and school lobbying groups, including unions, in as many battles as possible at one time, as he tries to push through $1.5 billion in school-aid cuts.

"Forcing people to fight multifaceted battles is one of the oldest political tricks in the book, and governors and legislators do that all the time," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has strongly criticized Cuomo's proposed budget. "What it does is diffuses people's efforts and distracts them from a singular priority."

Put another way, the more people are discussing the idea of capping superintendents' pay, the less they are weighing whether a $1.5 billion cut is good or necessary. "It could be a negotiating strategy," said Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari (D-Cohoes). "The more things that are on the table, the more options there are for trading and reaching consensus."

 

Gaining support 'difficult'

School spending has risen dramatically over the last decade, going from $14.2 billion in the 2001-02 academic year to $21.7 billion in 2009-10. Lawmakers trimmed it to $20.9 billion for 2010-11, as the state's cash woes worsened. Now, Cuomo has proposed to cut it to $19.4 billion for the upcoming year.

Given that Cuomo has called for an overall budget cut of $3.7 billion, it's obvious education aid would be part of the cuts - since school aid is the second largest single budget item, next to Medicaid. In addition, "There seems to be enough public sentiment that public education has been treated a bit too well," over the years, said Jeffrey Stonecash, a political scientist at Syracuse University.

Stonecash added that Cuomo faces "a difficult challenge in selling" his cuts. New Yorkers have become accustomed to school aid going steadily upward.

"He's got to shake that expectation" if his budget is to be adopted, Stonecash said. Breaking off bits of the education system and spotlighting them, such as superintendents' pay, is "a very clever move" on the governor's part to change the historical focus of the education debate, he added.

Asked about the governor's aggressive approach, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said: "We want to make sure New Yorkers know the facts about the governor's budget, how it impacts their school districts and ways to find savings within the existing system to prevent impacts on our students and in the classroom."

 

Approval ratings strong

School boards have countered that dipping into reserve funds would be a short-term fix, but a long-term disaster. Unions said pay freezes and increased health care contributions are the stuff of collective bargaining. And superintendents claim that salary reductions and a salary cap - for some, their pay would be cut in half under Cuomo's plan - would drive many out of the field. But so far, the attacks haven't swayed the polls.

A key factor in Cuomo's strategy is his high approval ratings, Greenberg said. In Siena's most recent poll, 77 percent of New Yorkers surveyed gave Cuomo a thumbs up and 72 percent supported his overall budget. That gives him more leeway to be aggressive than his recent predecessors. For now, Greenberg said, "the public is listening to him."

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