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New York State's money matters

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and Regent

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and Regent Beverly L. Ouderkirk, who represents 11 northern New York counties on the policymaking panel, speak with reporters at a meeting of the state Board of Regents in Albany on Dec. 10, 2018. Credit: Hans Pennink

Daily Point

State Ed’s MaryEllen Elia drops by

There’s a need that is increasing the difficulty of educating students in New York, including in some already challenged districts on Long Island, but directing funding to address it is circuitous at best.

The challenge is an influx of children without legal status, including unaccompanied minors from Central America, over the past five years. The barriers are both a federal law that bars schools from asking the immigration status of any child, and the reality that any attempt to quantify the enrollment of these students might lead scared parents and guardians to not enroll the children in school.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia visited the Newsday Editorial Board Friday and, as part of a broad-ranging conversation, shared that when it comes to unaccompanied minors in the state’s funding formula, “there is no way to address that issue.” Elia said that other than requesting more money for English Language Learners, as she and the Regents have done as part of their role in this year’s blossoming budget battle, there is little that can be done to address this specific problem in the budget process.

And it is a uniquely costly issue, because beyond simply not being adept in English, many unaccompanied minors may also have had little formal schooling, in any language, and may have physical and mental health needs stemming from their relocation.  

This is a huge issue on Long Island where, data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement early this year showed, Suffolk County ranks fourth in the nation in the number of minors awaiting immigration proceedings while staying with family and guardians with 5,269. Nassau ranked ninth in the nation, with 4,286.

And Elia said these children often go to districts and communities swollen with new immigrants. So to all the arguments over the education “formula” in Albany, add this. One of the most pressing needs for these districts cannot be properly quantified or properly funded, according to Elia. The increased difficulty for educators, however, is plain to see.

Lane Filler

Talking Point

Rookie Senator Thomas takes on student loan debt

The big debates in Albany as lawmakers head into the last week of budget season may be confined to big topics like education funding, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, and congestion pricing.

But for State Sen. Kevin Thomas, there’s another significant issue deserving of the spotlight. So Thomas talked to the Newsday Editorial Board this week, with a single topic in mind, the only one he agreed to talk about — student loan debt.

For Thomas, this is a signature issue -- one he worked on long before he arrived in the State Senate a few months ago. So, it’s no surprise that he can rattle off the statistics: More than 2 million New Yorkers have student loans. All together, they owe $90 billion, with average debt approaching $40,000. And too often, Thomas said, the servicers of those loans mislead borrowers and don’t recommend the best possible loan packages.

Thomas (D-Levittown) hopes to get two items into the state budget he says will help: an increase in the grant amount for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, and a new licensing program for student loan servicers.

The State Senate’s one-house bill includes both, and its licensing program is broad in scope, including both private loan servicers and those who service federal loans.

But that, Thomas said, is where the disagreement comes in because the State Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are limiting their scope to private loan servicers. Thomas said that misses the bulk of the issue, even if there’s concern about a potential legal challenge after a U.S. District Court decision that stopped much of Washington D.C.’s effort to regulate servicers. But that decision, Thomas said, “has no authority in New York.”

Thomas’ battle may be an uphill one -- but he’s not stopping there. He’s working with the Community Service Society of New York, which hopes to create a Student Loan Consumer Assistance Program, and seeks $1 million from the state for that effort. Representatives of the program joined Thomas in the visit with the editorial board Thursday, and said the program would add a hotline and a network of organizations that could assist borrowers.

For Thomas, this is about more than the data. He’s got $200,000 in student loan debt, he said, and before becoming a state senator, he worked as an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, often to protect student loan borrowers.

“This is personal to me,” Thomas said.

And Thomas also is looking past budget season, to focus additional attention on for-profit institutions, by finding ways to make them more accountable to the state. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for April 10.

Randi F. Marshall

Pencil Point


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Final Point

Low-tax Long Island

On this day in 1952, Newsday’s editorial board was in a celebratory mood.

The Albany legislative session had ended two days earlier, and the board on March 22 congratulated Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, state lawmakers and the people of New York for a “productive” session that nevertheless included “some mistakes, some omissions, some doubtful measures passed. On the whole, the record is impressive.”

Words to remember as the current budget session roils along.

Among the measures the board supported in 1952 as benefiting Long Islanders or New Yorkers were bills that gave Nassau County a cut of race and harness track business (Belmont Park and Roosevelt Raceway) within its borders and Long Island communities the right to decide which sport and recreational activities they would allow on Sundays under a relaxation of the state’s blue laws.

One other bill repealed a 66-year-old ban on adding food coloring to margarine to make the then-white substance a more appealing yellow. That ended a tough four-year battle led by Plandome GOP Assemb. Genesta Strong with the result that, as the board noted, “housewives with slim budgets no longer will have to work the coloring matter into the margarine themselves.”

The board decried passage of a bill to make it a misdemeanor “to publish or sell comic books that ‘tend to incite’ young people to commit immoral or violent acts,” as a freedom of the press issue. And it complained that the legislature did not pass Dewey’s proposal for required automobile inspections.

But the best part of the editorial was what we in the business call the walkoff.

“Note to New Yorkers: The legislature also passed the three per cent city sales tax and a whole long list of nuisance taxes for your special benefit. Better move out to Long Island.”

Imagine that — moving to Long Island to escape higher taxes.

Michael Dobie