Education seemed destined for the spotlight in New York’s gubernatorial election, with a longtime school-funding activist facing off against a governor whose school policies have shifted significantly during his tenure.
But after a debate with almost no mention of the topic, and campaigns that focused more on crumbling transit systems, schools have taken a back seat in this year’s New York gubernatorial primary election between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.
Still, whoever wins Thursday’s vote is widely expected to take the governor’s mansion and have enormous influence over education, which at $27 billion is the largest category of state spending.
Here is what your vote could mean for the state’s 2.6 million students — and for schools in your own neighborhood.
Cuomo: The governor points out that school funding has increased under his watch (including a $1 billion boost last year) and says the state should focus on how current funding is distributed to minimize inequities. That was one of the reasons Cuomo pushed for school districts, including New York City, to more quickly release data on how much money each school spends per student.
“The real issue is the distribution of that money,” Cuomo said earlier this year. “We have an education inequality problem in this state.”
Nixon: The actress best known for her role on “Sex and the City” traces her decision to run for governor all the way back to her time as a school-funding activist and her championing of a lawsuit that argued New York State did not provide students with a “sound basic education.” The lawsuit was ultimately successful in court, but Nixon and other advocates say the state has never fully complied with its terms.
So it’s no surprise that a key pillar of Nixon’s campaign is infusing schools with $7 billion in additional funding, financed by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, with the goal of reducing class sizes and hiring more counselors and teachers. It’s a proposal backed by some recent research that shows even though New York spends more per student than any other state, more funding would still boost student achievement.
Asked about the her plan’s expensive price tag, Nixon said: “You know what? It is and it should be.”
Cuomo: A beneficiary of donations from pro-charter groups during past campaigns, Cuomo came into office vowing to expand the charter sector and did. There are 253 charter schools operating across the state, according to the New York City Charter Center, a roughly 43 percent jump since 2010. (He was even named a “champion for charters” by a national charter school organization.) This support, along with his push to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, strained his relationship with teachers unions.
But Cuomo has said little about charter schools during this campaign and it is unclear what his vision for them is going forward. And he has largely made peace with the state’s teacher unions (though they still declined to endorse him).
Nixon: For her part, Nixon’s education plan does not mention charter schools — something her campaign has sometimes characterized as a distraction from her plans for district schools. More recently she has said she doesn’t believe they are truly public because they are privately operated.
Cuomo: You can expect Cuomo to continue to tout the Excelsior scholarship, which he has billed as a first-of-its-kind “free college” program that covers tuition at two- and four-year state schools for some New York residents. The 2017-2018 academic year was the first of a three-year phase in, with about 22,000 students benefiting from the inaugural round of funding. Over this year and next, Excelsior will expand to cover more middle-class families, with the income requirement shifting upwards to ultimately include those making $125,000 or less.
But Excelsior has been consistently criticized for serving few students, and leaving out the most needy. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future found that only 3 percent of the state’s undergrads received the scholarship in its first year. Experts blame the program’s strict credit requirements and other eligibility rules for shutting many students out. Excelsior is currently a “last dollar” program, meaning it only pays for tuition costs that aren’t already covered through other aid programs. Since many poor students already get their tuition bill paid through programs such as Pell Grants, they often don’t benefit from Excelsior.
Nixon: The scholarship rules could change under a Nixon governorship. She has proposed to limit the scholarship to families making $80,000 or less, and said she favors a “first dollar” program that would cover tuition expenses first, leaving poor students to use other financial aid programs for other college costs. Her plan would also lower the credit requirement from 30 hours to 24 hours, according to her campaign.
Cuomo: De Blasio’s control of city schools is up for renewal in 2019, giving Albany a major bargaining chip over the city in the next legislative session. Cuomo has said lawmakers should address mayoral control alongside the debate around admissions for specialized high schools.
Mayoral control was on the verge of lapsing in 2017, until de Blasio struck a last-minute deal for his first two-year extension of power (lawmakers had previously granted only single-year deals) in exchange for concessions on charter schools.
Nixon: Nixon has suggested a different approach entirely: extending mayoral control permanently.
Specialized high schools
Cuomo: New York City’s specialized high schools have come under sharp scrutiny for being starkly segregated, with critics pinning the problem on how the sought-after schools admit students. De Blasio has launched an effort to scrap the exam that currently serves as the only entrance criteria, replacing it with a system that offers admission to top students in city middle schools. That would require a change in state law.
De Blasio’s hopes largely rest on the state Senate flipping to Democratic control, but it will ultimately be up to the governor to sign any legislation that may come forward.
Cuomo, who has constantly butted heads with de Blasio, could give the mayor a hard time. He has suggested that any admissions changes should be a part of larger education discussions, including whether the legislature should extend de Blasio’s control over city schools.
Nixon: On the other hand, Nixon has come out in support of a bill that would make the mayor’s proposal a reality. In fact, Nixon seems to go even further than de Blasio.
Her education platform seems to echo the position of many advocates: that the SHSAT is only enshrined into law for three of the eight schools that use the exam. Many say de Blasio could nix the exams at five of the schools — without support from the state legislature. But the mayor’s team has raised legal questions about that.
Cuomo: Accusations that the city’s Jewish religious schools don’t offer an adequate secular education have long been a cause of controversy for de Blasio. But the schools could become a headache for Cuomo, too, should he remain in the governor’s mansion.
Cuomo received the endorsement of a politically powerful Brooklyn rabbi last week — reportedly after promising not to interfere with the religious schools, which have been the subject of a controversial investigation into whether they are flouting New York law. The governor’s office did not confirm or deny whether he made the comment, but a spokesman told Gothamist that “the governor has no role in this matter as schools are regulated by the state Education Department.”
State law requires private schools to provide a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools in exchange for public money. After a slow-running investigation that took three years, city officials recently released a report that found attendance was voluntary at some yeshivas during secular subjects like English, and that students received little instruction in math and science.
It’s unclear what sway the governor could have over the issue. A recent change in state law means that the New York education department will decide how to proceed.
Nixon: It’s also unclear what Nixon’s leadership would mean for the city’s yeshivas. She declined to comment on the topic when asked about it this summer, and her education platform does not make any mention of religious schools.