State of State address includes call for more educators, research money

Hiring 2,000 new educators at the state’s public universities, creating a $4 billion higher educatio
Gov. Eliot Spitzer gestures during his State of the State address Wednesday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gov. Eliot Spitzer gestures during his State of the State address Wednesday.

Hiring 2,000 new educators at the state’s public universities, creating a $4 billion higher education endowment fund, eliminating junk food from schools and looking for school property tax relief are all on Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s to-do list for 2008.

“Without world-class education, we cannot have a world-class economy,” he said Wednesday during his second State of the State address. “Last year, we focused on pre-school to grade 12. This year, we must also look beyond high school to our colleges and universities.”

Spitzer wants to add 2,000 State University and City University educators, including 250 “eminent scholars,” who are professors involved in research that draws grants and collaboration from around the world. The governor’s Commission on Higher Education made this recommendation in its report last month.

He also wants to create an innovation fund to promote research at New York’s public and private colleges.

“Supercharging cutting-edge academic research will also supercharge our innovation economy,” he said.

Spitzer also proposed creating a public higher education endowment fund with at least $4 billion, which he said would generate $200 million in operating funds each year.

“Higher education funding should no longer be a budgetary pawn or a yearly battle. It must be a permanent priority,” he said.

To fund this, he suggested having a private company run the New York State Lottery, with money from a franchise fee funding the endowment.

In an effort to address rising property taxes, Spitzer is appointing a study commission, and noted that school spending accounts for about 70 percent of all property taxes. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who was Spitzer’s rival in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary, will lead the commission.

Spitzer opened the idea of a legislated tax limit. “A tax cap is a blunt instrument, but it forces hard choices and discipline when nothing else works,” he said. His speech drew mostly praise from education officials, though they expressed concern about any tax caps.

Spitzer also called on the Legislature to pass the Healthy Schools Act to eliminate junk food in the effort to battle childhood obesity.

“In New York, one in four children is obese, and that number is rising. Left unchanged, we are sentencing a huge number of our children to a lifetime of serious illness,” he said. He is asking the Department of Health to send him a progress report.

He called for a bill guaranteeing New York’s returning combat veterans a benefit covering the full cost of tuition at SUNY and CUNY.

SUNY Interim Chancellor John B. Clark praised the idea of an endowment for the university.

Fred Floss, president of United University Professions — representing more than 34,000 higher education faculty — endorsed the governor’s efforts to invest in the higher education system.

“Rebuilding the ranks of our full-time faculty at SUNY and the City University of New York is absolutely critical to rebuilding New York’s financial future, and we applaud the governor for seeing that connection,” he said in a press release.

Floss said SUNY needs 1,600 more full-time faculty. He added that full funding of SUNY is necessary because in the past several years, it turned away 7,500 community college students because of the shortage of full-time faculty.

SCHENECTADY CITED

The governor singled out the Schenectady City School District as one of the 55 participating in one of his signature initiatives last year, the Contracts for Excellence.

Last year, the state increased spending on education from $17.7 billion to $19.2 billion. The state distributed nearly a half-billion dollars in additional Contracts for Excellence aid to 55 school districts to reduce class sizes in the early grades, lengthen the school day and improve teaching.

Spitzer pointed out that all of Schenectady’s elementary schools have “master teachers” and the middle schoolers are enrolled in smaller class sizes.

Superintendent Eric Ely said these teachers, which they call instructional coaches, train other teachers on how to adapt their teaching methods to different learning styles.

“Obviously, we’re happy that our efforts are being recognized,” he said.

The district also used its $15.5 million in additional state aid to hire teachers to reduce class sizes at the middle school and start afterschool programs.

Ely expressed concern about the tax cap idea, adding that the federal government’s cost-of-living rate does not take into account the price of fuel and food.

“It’s a little trickier than slapping a number on there and saying ‘you can’t go beyond this percentage.’ You have to either generate revenue or you have to cut — one way or the other,” he said. “If we start cutting programs, it goes directly against what I would consider to be the Contract for Excellence.”

No arguments surfaced about junk food.

Ely said the school district already has banned junk food and increased its physical education requirement. Students have physical education at least every other day and they have required healthful snacks and low-fat foods.

Bob Hanlon, spokesman for the Scotia-Glenville School District, said the district has eliminated the junk food from vending machines. They serve skim milk instead of whole milk. They have also restricted classroom parties where food is served — such as birthday parties — to twice a month. It has also increased its physical education programs.

UNION SUPPORT

New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi said the union is pleased with the governor’s focus on higher education because any talk of revitalizing the upstate economy with new jobs will require educated people to fill those jobs.

He said the union supports the governor’s theme of accountability in education. However, Iannuzzi said the union has expressed concern about the possibility of a tax cap.

“Our fear is that blunt instrument could butcher the progress we’ve made in schools,” he said.

Iannuzzi pointed out a number of factors that contribute to high education costs, including health care expenses and the fact that New York state demands more of its teachers, for example, requiring teachers to get a master’s degree.

He also said he worries that wealthier communities may have the ability to override the tax caps.

“If that is the case, we’re just going to draw a greater spread between the richer and poorer communities with respect to addressing the achievement gap of our students. That isn’t something we want to see happening,” he said.

The New York State School Boards Association has already come out in opposition to a property tax cap.

“Any solution to the spiraling property taxes must address the root causes: soaring health insurance costs, pension obligations, the rising cost of energy, state and federal mandates and laws that severely disadvantage school boards in the collective bargaining process,” Executive Timothy G. Kremer said in a statement.

The School Administrators Association of New York State, which represents more than 6,800 school administrators, supervisors and coordinators, also said it does not support a property tax cap because it is a matter of local control.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the Alliance for Quality Education also praised Spitzer for offering a multiyear commitment to increase basic classroom operating aid by $5.5 billion statewide over four years. Spitzer plans a $1.24 billion foundation aid increase, including $530 million for New York City.

The state Board of Regents is proposing to increase aid by another $1.9 billion in the 2008-09, which would bring the total school aid to more than $20 billion.

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