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EDITORIAL: Budget opera needs new score


IT DOESN’T PAY to get too worked up about state budget negotiations. Think of them as like an opera… without the music. Performers stand around and make loud noises while holding out their hands. Some noises can be quite beautiful, and others, well, it’s an acquired taste. But whether its tragedy or farce, operas and budget negotiations eventually end the same way they did the last time you saw them.

New plot twists can increase the local impact of Albany’s springtime theatrics, which seems likely this year, because the governor is using the budget to squeeze the legislature for policy changes. And Mr. Cuomo got off to a fast start by linking passage of the budget to his ethics reforms. The timing seemed perfect after the latest scandals.

But it turns out that the governor, who knows an opportunity when smells one, has decided to harness a grab bag of issues to the budget, including new teacher evaluation standards, more charter schools and big tax breaks for wealthy people who donate to private schools. Meanwhile school districts are waiting to find out how much state aid they will receive. That aid helps determine our property taxes and whether districts will cut programs or rebuild a little more after the lean years of recession.

The state Assembly and Senate have both proposed increases in state aid larger than the governor’s proposal for just over $1 billion statewide. The Assembly, controlled by Democrats, has upped the ante to $1.8 billion. But lawmakers are resisting terms the governor has placed on his approval of more school funding, though the state constitution gives Mr. Cuomo great powers to impose his will.

Voters don’t seem to care much that the process of state government remains secretive or that this governor loves flexing his political biceps. Governors frequently use their constitutional powers at budget time to twist arms and get legislation passed. But Governor Cuomo has gone too far on at least two of his proposals and it’s time the public took notice.

His educational tax credit plan sounds like a reasonable scheme that might encourage people to donate money to public and private schools in exchange for a huge tax credit–up to 75% of their donation–off their income tax. That’s fine if you make , say, over $200,000 a year. But it raises the possibility that big earners will get to determine which schools benefit from their money and benefit themselves from a reduced income tax. And the rest of us?

We pay for the tax breaks. How’s that any fairer to the taxpayers and students of Hudson or Germantown, New Lebanon, Chatham, Ichabod or Taconic Hills?

Taxpayers are right to be wary of what government does with state aid for schools. But rewarding our wealthier neighbors with greater rights than we have to control their own spending on schools is hardly the way to improve public education. It should be abandoned.

The other policy area where the governor has gone off the rails is his campaign to demonize teachers, blaming them for what ails education. Mr. Cuomo was not responsible for botching the rollout of the Common Core curriculum and the revolt against round-the-clock testing that undermined the good parts of Common Core along with the bad. He inherited these problems and, to his credit, he wants to repair the damage.

But he seems unable to accept that his options are limited. The state constitution gives the legislature  the power to appoint the Board of Regents, and the Regents set education policy. The governor could do so much more to improve public education by making common cause with the teachers, most of whom are as fed up as he is with the small minority of their colleagues who can’t or won’t do their jobs well.

The hubris of Governor Cuomo lies in his belief that he can unilaterally impose his one-sided, teacher-hostile reforms any more effectively than the Regents managed the Common Core curriculum and its hyperactive testing regime. He can’t and he’s a fool if he tries.

The governor’s smart enough to know that it’s not how many ideas you have; it’s good results that count. He should leverage the budget to secure real ethics reforms and distribute state aid in the fairest way possible. Then enlist the teachers as the key to improving public education. If that’s hard for Governor Cuomo to accept, perhaps he should keep in mind that the data suggest people trust teachers more than they trust him.

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