Eliot Spitzer with state Senator Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.
Eliot Spitzer with State Sen. Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.

Correction appended

Eliot Spitzer is touting his education record during his time as governor in the race for New York City comptroller, pledging to use the same approach he took in Albany in order to scrutinize the city school system.

In what has become a closely watched race, due mainly to Spitzer’s late entrance, many aspects of Spitzer’s brief tenure as governor have been sharply scrutinized. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has focused on a few, including legislative gridlock, a politically charged police surveillance program, and the prostitution scandal that ended with his resignation after just 15 months in office.

But an area that Stringer’s campaign has stayed mum on so far is Spitzer’s record on education, which several funding advocates praised today. Though his time in Albany was short, they said Spitzer fought hard to convince the legislature to fulfill a school funding mandate for poorer districts to the fullest extent as part of a settlement that came out of a lengthy lawsuit called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

“Governor Eliot Spitzer was a clear champion on CFE,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which was formed to lobby and organize on behalf of the campaign.

When Spitzer entered office in 2007, the lawsuit, which sought to bring more money to school districts with many poor students, had stalled for more than a decade due to appeals from the state. Michael Rebell, a lead lawyer who handled the case, said Spitzer quickly settled the lawsuit, then struck a deal with the legislature to set aside more than $5 billion for New York City schools over five years, a larger sum than what the courts mandated.

The extra funding showed up in two years of state budgets while Spitzer was in office. It dissolved after the 2008 recession significantly curtailed spending and has not been been restored since. This year the state increased city funding by $364 million, down from $616 million in 2007.

“I have my differences with Eliot Spitzer about a number of issues and I’m not getting into about who I’m supporting for comptroller, but when it comes to education funding in 2007, he was as strong a supporter of New York City’s funding needs as any governor could be,” Rebell said. “He was terrific.”

It was praise that has been in short supply for Spitzer during his two-month candidacy. He’s received scant support from elected officials, unions, and advocacy organizations like the one that Easton runs.

Many groups had already endorsed Stringer, who lags behind Spitzer in polls. But Spitzer’s solicitation of prostitutes has been a major impediment in his efforts to attract support even from past allies.

Still, City Councilman Robert Jackson, a plaintiff on the CFE lawsuit, said he had no trouble acknowledging Spitzer’s role as an ally during the case.

“It’s the truth,” said Jackson, who endorsed Stringer and is running to succeed him as Manhattan borough president. “I’m not going to hide from the truth.”

At a press conference across the street from a Brooklyn school this afternoon, Spitzer brought up education funding often while discussing his priorities as a prospective comptroller. The comptroller is the fiscal steward for the city and does not control how schools are funded. But Spitzer said he’d use the position’s auditing authority to continue to work on education spending, specifically by scrutinizing budgets at schools in wealthy neighborhoods to determine if schools are funded equitably.

Another area within the Department of Education that Spitzer said he’d audit is how standardized testing has affected schools. The state requires that students take annual reading and math tests, but Spitzer said he would focus on what happens in city classrooms before the exams.
“What are the materials? Are we skewing and misdirecting our class activities for the test rather than using a broader curriculum?” said Spitzer, who was surrounded by a small group that included State Sen. Marty Dilan. “Those are the sorts of issues, pedagogical issues as well as mechanical issues, that we can absolutely audit.”

A spokeswoman for Stringer did not respond to a request for comments. But she pointed to budgetary uncertainties that surrounded education funding before and after Spitzer resigned in March 2008.

Spitzer’s budget proposal that year cut the city’s projected funding increase by $100 million, an announcement that drew criticism at the time.

Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which had waged a 13-year legal battle to win more state money for city schools, said at the time that the budget would mean fewer teachers, larger classes and less money spent on programs such as extended school days and Saturday school.

“The governor and the legislature have made a long-term commitment to these kids,” Palast told the New York Times. “We have an obligation to get them to fulfill that commitment.”

Correction: A previous version misstated the 2013 school aid increase that New York City received.