National News

Nixon’s Education Plan: Ambitious, Progressive, Expensive

Posted June 13, 2018 11:53 p.m. EDT

Cynthia Nixon, whose run for governor of New York is staked on her experience as an activist in the public schools, released her education platform Wednesday. It outlined her vision for schools in the state and highlighted differences with her opponent in the Democratic primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The $7.4 billion plan is ambitious, progressive — and expensive. Nixon proposes a $700 million expansion of child care subsidies and a new program to pay for college. She calls for more access to social services outside the classroom. And she sharply criticizes the status quo as a system where “white, wealthy children are prepared for college, and low-income children of color are disproportionately put into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Positioning herself against Cuomo is a constant.

“If I had to attribute the fact that I’m running for governor to one issue and one moment,” Nixon said in an interview, “it would be the education issue.”

The biggest item on her agenda is $4.2 billion in additional money for K-12 education. Nixon favors a school funding formula called Foundation Aid, which was created after New York’s Court of Appeals found the state was not giving New York City enough money to provide its students with a “sound basic education” in 2006. The state Legislature and Gov. Eliot Spitzer wrote the Foundation Aid formula in response.

“I could see the difference in my own children’s schools, and certainly they were not high-needs schools,” Nixon said of the increase in funding that followed. “So one can only know how much greater the impact was where the need was greater.”

But after the 2008 recession hit, the formula was frozen and has never been fully put in effect. A pitched battle has been waged in recent years to revive it, led in part by the Alliance for Quality Education, an education advocacy group with which Nixon has worked for years.

Nixon’s platform calls for fully funding the formula, and she proposes forming a commission to recommend updates on how it is calculated.

Another major initiative, called “College for All New York,” would provide free tuition to an additional 170,000 students at State University of New York and City University of New York schools each year, a project the campaign said would cost $600 million annually.

This proposal takes aim at one of Cuomo’s signature education initiatives, the Excelsior Scholarship, which provides free tuition to qualifying students at public colleges and universities. The program was the first of its kind in the country to include two- and four-year institutions, but it has been criticized for benefiting mostly middle-class students, not the poor.

Excelsior is designed for students who attend college full time and graduate on time, a schedule that is often impossible for students who need to work. It is also what’s called a “last dollar” program, which means it covers whatever tuition remains after other grants and aid have been taken into account. And it cannot be used for expenses like room and board.

Nixon’s program would be a “first dollar” program, which means federal Pell Grants, for example, could be reserved to pay for living expenses. And it would not require students to stay in New York after graduation, which Excelsior graduates must do for a time or their grants will convert into loans. The maximum family income for qualifying applicants would be lower, capped at $80,000, rather than the $125,000 that it will be under Excelsior starting in the fall of 2019.

To pay for her education initiatives, Nixon wants to raise taxes on high earners and increase what the state brings in from corporations. A so-called “millionaires tax” would raise rates on families earning $300,000 a year or more. Her plan also calls for raising corporate income tax rates and charging an income tax surcharge on corporations that buy back their own stock.

Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, said in a statement that “New York spends more per pupil than any state in the nation — a record $27 billion per year (a 36 percent increase since 2012)” — and that New York is the only state in the country that pays full tuition for students going to two- or four-year schools. Nixon’s plan also weighs in on a few political flash points. She endorses a state Assembly bill that would change the admissions requirements for New York City’s specialized high schools, which currently admit students on the basis of a single test. Black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented at those schools, which are among the most prestigious in the city. The new plan was put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Nixon’s longtime political ally. In place of the admissions test, de Blasio has proposed admitting students based on their class rank and state test scores.

Nixon’s platform also signals its politics with what it ignores. In the 24-page document, charter schools are never mentioned.