Pie In The Sky
By HENRY STERN
What do you write when the major news story of the day is totally ridiculous? It was a little Danish boy, back in 1837, who said: “The emperor has no clothes,” because everyone else was deluded into believing that he was wearing a magnificent suit.
Our chain of events begins with the original lawsuit by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). Eleven years later, the issue of education funding has become an argument in which none of the parties has a rational and affordable exit strategy.
When they sued the State of New York back in 1993, the CFE complained that under the formula the state used to calculate financial aid to local school districts, New York City received substantially less assistance per pupil than school districts outside the city. That was true, and CFE had a valid complaint. The reason for this injustice was the political influence of suburban legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who were powerful enough to get more money for their districts. The lawsuit was an effort to use the courts to cure specific legislative discrimination.
The case worked its way through the judicial process for years. As time passed, it morphed from the issue of fairness for New York City into a quest for an educational goldmine for the entire state. Trial judge Leland DeGrasse found for the plaintiffs in January 2001, and was reversed by a 4-to-1 vote of the Appellate Division in June 2002.
In the appellate court’s opinion, a judge wrote that the state is only responsible for providing an eighth-grade education. In the world we live in today, that statement is absurd. Of course people have to go to high school to have a decent chance to find meaningful employment. That is, and for years has been, a state responsibility.
In 2003, the Court of Appeals, with a bare minimum of four votes held that children were entitled to a “meaningful high school education,” and that the state funding system should be reformed to see that districts were treated equally. The court gave the Legislature a little over a year to work out a new formula and provide adequate resources to the schools.
As one might have expected, the Legislature and the governor did next to nothing before the judicially imposed deadline, July 30, 2004. The case then went back to the trial judge, who in August appointed three senior lawyers, two of them former judges and one a former law school dean, to determine what a “meaningful high school education” should cost.
Last week, the Three Wise Men, as they have been called, submitted their report. They want $14 billion more for education, added to the current state budget over four years. The problem is that their report is out of la-la land. There is no $14 billion to add to the budget. The state budget now has a $6 billion deficit. New York State imposes the highest level of taxes of any state in the country. We also spend more per pupil on education than any other state. The Empire State - highest state and local taxes and highest education spending. And now, add 40% more?
Public officials have spun the report in ways that are most supportive of their positions, their districts and their financial needs. That is reasonable and predictable; they are staking out positions for the negotiations that may or may not take place before the court steps in again.
Our contribution to this debate is to say openly and clearly that there is no $14 billion there to spend. It is true that the school system is not educating children as well as we would wish, and in some cases probably failing them entirely. But it is not helpful to throw good money after bad.
Reform the schools, using what is already the largest education budget in America, rather than simply beg for even more money. Ever heard of value?
The state of New York is necessarily competitive with other states with regards to rates of taxation for individuals and businesses. To raise taxes by the amount demanded in order to comply with this proposal would accelerate the departure from New York of high-taxed individuals and corporations.
What is unique about this situation is that high public officials know privately that what we say is true. They cannot say so publicly, because they don’t want to appear anti-education, or offend the teachers’ lobby, the largest in New York State and the equivalent of the defense industry lobby in Washington. They also want to protect their own constituencies, which means shifting the burden to other taxpayers.
As for the Three Wise Men, I respect them all for their distinguished careers and public service. However, (1) they have no background in public education, and (2) they are not inclined to jeopardize their reputations and their invitations, carefully nurtured over the years, by a spasm of truth telling, especially on a matter — funding — on which they were not specifically required to report. As for one Wise Man, why should he do anything which would injure the prospects of his son and namesake, a well-regarded public official and future mayoral candidate?
Unfortunately, the masters’ report reflects both inexperience in education and predictable naiveté about matters not within their expertise. But they are devoted and no worse than any of the other players involved in this long-running charade. They provide a façade of authority for a position which is impossible to implement.
This is the bottom line: you cannot spend money you do not have, nor have any reasonable prospect of getting. In ignoring this basic principle, the trial court, the Court of Appeals, legislative leaders, local officials, and the masters are participating in an exercise of folly that can only end in disappointment.
However, in 21 days, we greet 2005. Remember, the lawsuit began in 1993. Presumably, the great majority of students who were in public schools then have graduated by now. Can we truthfully say that most of them, including our children, did not receive a sound basic education in our public schools?
The separation of powers between the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — is a basic principle of our democratic government. When one branch, with the best of motives, sets itself up as lord and master over the others, we have a problem. That is where we are today.
We may not be able to do anything about the situation we face, but at least we can tell our readers that we believe that what is happening is absurd and insupportable.
A last word: Wait until you see the lawyers’ fees on this one. The meter is still running, and it will be for years to come.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for fifteen years and a Councilmember for nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good government group. He can be reached at: starquest.nycivic.or
My friend Henry Stern comments eloquently on this page about the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, the windfall decision for the children of New York City Schools and the absurdity of the entire process.
Reacting to the enormity of $14 billion over four years proposed by the court appointed masters, Henry cries “The Emperor has no clothes,” proclaiming reality as many react to the impact and the the cost.
Henry is right: New York State can’t come up with $14 billion over the next four years.
Henry is right: there is waste and ineffectiveness in the city and state in the administration of education.
Henry is right that the legislature and Governor have failed to act on a court order for well over a year and are certainly culpable in this fiasco.
Finally, he is right again that the Court appointed Masters were not the correct people to deal with the awesome task of resolving these problems..
However, I don’t agree with my friend Henry’s unwritten suggestion that our City schools are not entitled to such an enormous increase to achieve educational equity.
I’m sorry to be repetitious but this horrendous situation arises because the governor and the State legislature, year after year – for decades — have failed to do their job in funding City schools. The governor knew. The Legislative leaders and members knew it. For those members who claim they didn’t, they were told so by the court almost a year and a half ago and still did nothing.
The jokers in Albany who tell you that the budget was late for 20 years in a row because they held out for a good budget as opposed to an on-time budget, were the guys and gals who ultimately accepted the budget that shortchanged the kids of New York City an amount that the Court Masters have determined will take $14 billion to right.
Good budget? No.
A bad New York State Legislature – year after year for 20 years.
Now I understand regional differences, I understand partisan politics and I understand the game of horse trading to keep the system oiled and running. I understand the legislative process is not perfect.
But I can distinguish between imperfection and failure.
And apparently the legislative leaders and many of the members cannot.
The Governor and the Legislature are responsible for the Court, the Masters, the State, the Schools and the Budget for being in this horrendous situation. It has been their budgets – late and awful – and their failure to react when ordered to do so by the Court that has brought us to the precipice of disaster.
The have, because of press, public and good government’s increasingly loud reverberating outcries, started to discuss reforming their process. I have expressed doubt about their sincerity and ability in that regard.
But sadly, the imminent need for reform — the greatest challenge to the State Legislature in the history of the State — may be trumped by this financial and educational catastrophe written about by Henry and facing all of us who live in New York State.
The Legislature has done nothing to solve the problem. The Court appointed masters have proposed a solution to the educational problem but created a financial nightmare.
Our kids need a quality education and deserve their fair share.
Our State must remain competitive, financially sound and solve this problem.
And the New York State Legislature is responsible to fix what is broken.
Henry is right: “The Emperor has no clothes.”