ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A new, well-financed partnership plying both fundamentals of democracy and modern high-stakes lobbying plans to bring Albany’s fight over public school aid into New Yorkers’ homes.
The Alliance for Quality Education, a school advocacy group that helped unseat some incumbent senators in November, is joining with the powerful New York State United Teachers union to protect school funding.
The catalyst will be Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Feb. 1 budget proposal. But the target of the new partnership will be legislators who support Cuomo as he addresses a deficit of more than $10 billion.
“This is a different approach to politics,” said Billy Easton of AQE. “This is based on the idea that all politics is local and the best way we can influence the outcome here in Albany is what we do on the ground in people’s districts, and how successful we are in engaging communities in what’s happening,” Easton told The Associated Press.
NYSUT is providing AQE with $425,000 for use over four months to pay for staff in several counties statewide, many represented by potentially vulnerable senators. The funding will pay for rallies, local news events, phone banks to build pressure on Albany, mailings and door-to-door campaigns. It aims to mobilize clergy, parents, teachers and community leaders around their schools.
Seven more full-time organizers will operate from new offices, most of which correspond with Senate districts of five freshmen Republicans: Sens. Patty Ritchie, Lee Zeldin, Jack Martins, Greg Ball and Mark Grisanti. The slim GOP majority has been supportive of Cuomo’s broad fiscal plans and any loss of Republican votes could defeat Cuomo’s cuts.
“They are going to come under a lot of heat to just take cuts,” Easton said of the legislators.
The group and its allies are also fighting his plan to cap the growth of local school taxes at 2 percent a year, and his plan to allow a surcharge on the incomes of New Yorkers making over $200,000 a year to end as planned this year. That could provide up to $4 billion in more revenue.
The new group will also rally support around senators and Assembly members who oppose Cuomo’s fiscal plan.
But what Easton calls “bottom-up pressure” isn’t aimed at Cuomo. The Democrat is riding high popularity in the polls and has galvanized public support for taming Albany’s overspending and overtaxing.
“Not only do we spend too much, but we get too little in return,” Cuomo said in his well received State of the State speech on Jan. 5. “We spend more money on education than any state in the nation and we are number 34 in terms of results.”
Public school advocates point to other surveys that give New York education far better grades, but for now Cuomo has the public’s attention.
If history is repeated, that could change after Feb. 1.
The new effort will ratchet up what is expected to be a more intense onslaught of public and private lobbying than usual after Cuomo’s budget proposal.
Public worker unions are expected to soon air TV ads opposing cuts, emphasizing that deep cuts will mean layoffs for New Yorkers and reduced services for the elderly, the infirm and the poor, many of them children.
Those efforts have defeated similar fiscal plans of Govs. David Paterson, Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki.
But this year, business groups including the new coalition called the Committee to Save New York are airing statewide ads and a grass roots campaign is planned by the state Conservative Party, all to support Cuomo’s fiscal plan.
NYSUT, which has staged many of the most effective ads against education cuts, is waiting for the budget proposal to see how it proceeds, said union spokesman Carl Korn.
Korn notes that state aid to schools in the last two years dropped by more than 8 percent, or by more than $1 billion a year. Even last year’s federal stimulus funding that in part was to keep schools whole left schools with a 2.5-percent cut.
Korn also notes that declining state aid and further action by school districts have cut about 10,000 teaching jobs in 700 school districts in recent years, mostly by eliminating unfilled positions. But further cuts will require far more layoffs of active teachers, increasing class sizes, Korn said.
“Our message is going to be that we share everyone’s vision of turning around the state’s economy and we believe the best way to do that is to invest in education,” Korn said. “Our job is to work with the Legislature to be sure the final document protects education and other vital services.”
Annual state school aid is more than $20 billion a year, which Cuomo notes translates into the highest per-student spending in the nation. The state Division of Budget says more than 70 percent of state school aid goes to salaries and benefits.
But the new effort wants to change the terms of the debate from multibillion state deficits and macro economics.
“What do we want to cut in terms of a student’s opportunity?” Easton said. “How much are we willing to reduce the future income of New York’s kids?”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)