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Cuomo, Spitzer spar over school aid, landmark court judgment

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in New

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in New York City in 2013. Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Burton

ALBANY – An old rivalry flared up this week over the perennial fight over state school aid with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo blaming the lingering conflict on former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, while Spitzer countered that Cuomo has “an Orwellian relationship with the truth.”

Cuomo followed that comment by slamming Spitzer, who resigned after a year in office amid a prostitution scandal: “I don’t want to call it an administration because it wasn’t -- the short period of time that Spitzer was in the Capitol before he disgraced the office and the people of the State of New York.”

The flare-up between the one-time Democratic rivals, both of whom were aggressive attorneys general before becoming governor, is over Albany’s traditionally most contentious political issue: School aid.

 A landmark court case begun in 1992 by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity found that the state underfunded New York City schools in low-income neighborhoods and deprived their students of the “sound, basic education” required under the state constitution. In 2001, the state’s highest court ruled the state had to reform the school aid system. In 2006, the court ordered the state to pay $1.93 billion to city schools. A year later, under Spitzer, the state promised $7 billion in state aid to schools, with $5.5 billion going to annual “foundation aid” that is distributed statewide based on student need.

 When the recession began gutting state revenues in 2009, the payment plan based on the CFE case was suspended. And although the state annually increased state school aid by about $1 billion -- or roughly 5 percent -- almost every year since then, advocates such as the Alliance for Quality Education said $4 billion is still owed.

“It was a program that he started,” Cuomo said this week of Spitzer in saying the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case is history, not a massive obligation that he must fund in his budgets. “Programs do not last in eternity. They are a signature of the governor,” Cuomo told WAMC public radio.

Cuomo has been arguing the problem isn’t state school aid -- which is among the highest per pupil in the nation -- but how school districts aren’t using it effectively to help their poorest schools.

 “The CFE lawsuit was resolved 12 years ago under George Pataki,” Cuomo said in Monday’s speech on his 2019 priorities. “The foundation aid program was stopped by Eliot Spitzer, who started it in the first place 10 years ago. These are ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”

During his eight years in office, however, Cuomo has also tightened school spending with a 2 percent cap on overall state budget growth and by a 2 percent cap on local property taxes, most of which is school taxes.

“We created foundation aid and we maintained it,” Spitzer told Newsday. “The notion that we repealed it is simply not the case ...  (Cuomo) has an Orwellian relationship with the truth,” Spitzer said, referring to George Orwell's "1984," in which history was rewritten to serve those in power.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) also sees the Campaign for Fiscal Equity issue to be alive. He said the 2018-19 state budget included $618 million in foundation aid “pursuant to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.” The payment was part of a $914 million increase in total state school aid to $26.7 billion, or a 3.6 percent increase over the previous budget.

The incoming Democratic majority in the Senate has also spent years urging the state to “fulfill” the Campaign for Fiscal Equity promise. Democrats will control the Senate and have a seat in state budget negotiations this year after winning the majority in the November elections, in part by advocating for more school aid.

“It’s pretty simple,” Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education said of Cuomo’s argument. “It’s a lie.”

Easton said schools are still owed $4.1 billion in additional spending under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling.

“This is why he is trying to reframe this as inequities at the school level,” Easton said Thursday. “He doesn’t want to spend the money.”

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