November 8, 2011
Gov. Cuomo says he has made up his mind about the millionaires tax – he’s against it. Saying that continued taxation would push New Yorkers to leave the state, he recently said nothing could make him support extending the millionaires tax.
Think about that for a minute. Do you really believe that residents and businesses are likely to leave the state because a tax that has been in place for two years is going to be continued? Have you noticed real-estate prices in lower Manhattan dropping precipitously as all the millionaires have fled since 2009, when the tax was first enacted? Of course not.
But a recent poll found that 72 percent of registered voters in New York support continuing the tax, so it’s clear the governor is indeed taking a stand that carries some political risk. Why would he do that? Why would he say, as he did, “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much”? The answer has to be that he is counting on the support of the super-rich, and he’s not going to push any policies that make them nervous. Support for what? Let’s just say that Cuomo is ambitious.
So, what does this have to do with education? Well, of course, without more than $4 billion in revenue in the next year from the millionaires tax, schools across the state, but especially in the city, are looking at huge cuts to education. I’m a public school teacher and have seen the effects of budget cuts firsthand. But it is as a parent that I am most outraged.
As the parent of a second-grader at a neighborhood public school in Brooklyn, I’ve seen huge changes in just the short time my daughter has been in school. When we toured the school the year before she began, there were 20-22 students in the kindergarten classes we saw (yes, we counted). When she began the next fall, there were 25 kids in her class. Last year, there were 27, and this year, 29. Her teachers, all of whom are dedicated and hard-working, appear exhausted every afternoon, and I feel like I’m watching them burn out before my eyes. And we are told there will be more cuts in January, and then again in June? It’s hard to fathom.
Cuomo’s response to parents who complain about budget cuts is to note that New York State spends too much on education for too little in the way of results anyway, so what’s wrong with cutting the funding? In his State of the State address this year, he noted that New York is “number one in spending but 34 in terms of results.”
There are a few reasons this argument is nonsense. First of all, as Education Week analyzed, when you adjust for the demographics of the student population as well as regional costs, New York actually comes in fourth in overall spending and second in outcomes — not first and 34th. New York has a much higher percentage of students who live in poverty and students with special needs than the national average, and those students tend to score lower on standardized tests and receive extra federal funding. So raw numbers regarding their scores and amount spent per pupil will make New York look both underperforming and overspending, but those numbers are misleading.
More important, however, is that the New York State’s spending average is brought way up by the wealthier districts, some of which spend upwards of $40,000 per pupil. The Byram Hills School District, where Cuomo sends his daughters to school, spends about $6,000 per year more than New York City on each student.
And here’s the kicker. How is Byram Hills dealing with the cuts to education certain to result from Cuomo’s decision to cut taxes on the super-rich? The district is raising more revenue through local property taxes. In fact, wealthier school districts around the state are opting out of the current law capping property tax raises at 2 percent a year. The Westchester supervisor in the County town of Bedford (which includes the Byram Hills school district), said, “We should be able to dictate our own financial future,” explaining why the county voted itself a waiver from the cap.
In Bedford, the average home value is almost $1 million dollars, and the average individual income is about $280,000 a year. In other words, Bedford has just voted to continue a version of the current millionaires tax in order to support its school system, which is already paying $6,000 per year more than New York City for each student. So far, there has been no exodus from Bedford reported in the media.
Watching the success of Occupy Wall Street in recent weeks, it occurred to my wife and me that ordinary people — just parents of a kid in public school — can organize and push back. We’re not able to camp out in Zuccotti Park for the next few weeks, but we can let the governor know what we think of his plan, and we have persuaded others to join us. Today, Election Day, we’ll be in front of the governor’s New York City office (from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at 40th Street and 3rd Avenue). We’re bringing our kids. We’ll be making some noise and engaging in some street theater (selling cupcakes to make up the shortfall — at a dollar apiece, we only need to sell 1.4 billion!). We need to convince the governor that his political future depends on the success of the state he is running, not the campaign contributions of the top 1 percent.