Teachers Unions in an alternate reality

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) recently announced it would sue the state of New York for withholding 20 percent of state aid to public school districts.

The teachers union has no case, but it could resolve the matter easily without going to court.

First, New York State’s budget is running about a deficit of $14.5 billion, the largest ever projected in the middle of a state fiscal year (which ends March 31st). When the state legislature approved the budget last April, after the coronavirus public health emergency was declared, it surrendered its power of the purse by giving Governor Andrew Cuomo sweeping authority over spending – including not spending what it appropriated.

The economic shutdown to battle the coronavirus has cost the state billions in lost revenue, which was anticipated by Gov. Cuomo and the legislature. That is why lawmakers agreed to give the governor unprecedented ability to unilaterally control—that is, reduce—spending.

Spending on public education comprises the largest share of state-funded spending. There is no way to control expenses without spending less on the largest share of funding. The governor has no choice, and it is highly unlikely a state court will interfere with his legislatively sanctioned control over the state’s financial plan during the coronavirus emergency.

That is not to say NYSUT won’t find a political judge somewhere who is eager to feel his or her oats by ordering the governor to spend money that doesn’t exist. A judge may even try to extrapolate from the state’s constitution that the establishment of a system of public schools somehow mandates state income and property taxpayers fulfill the spending demands of the teachers union.

There is precedent for such judicial activism when, after 13 years of litigation, the state’s highest court ruled in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case in 2006 that the state must spend more on education. In the end, this most misunderstood case fell short of ordering the state to increase school spending, and the governor and lawmakers still disagree whether this ruling was fulfilled (Cuomo claims it has, the legislature and teacher unions claim it has not).

Second, rather than spend teacher union dues on frivolous, grandstanding litigation that will produce nothing, NYSUT and its national teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), should focus their energy on the U.S. Congress. Senate Republicans are proposing nearly $70 billion for elementary and secondary education, with about 10 percent of it for non-government schools, including parochial schools. The House Democrats already passed legislation that included nearly $60 billion for public schools.

Sixty billion dollars buys a lot of PPE, plastic screens, computer technology, cleaning products, additional building space for smaller class sizes, and much else. Yet, AFT president Randi Weingarten dismissed this unprecedented infusion of federal education money as “bulimic.” New York State’s share of such funding would total around $4 billion – which comprises nearly 20 percent of state aid to public schools that is on the chopping block.

Despite New York’s $4 billion education windfall, Senate Democrats, led New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, led a filibuster against the Senate bill. Both Sen. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are demanding trillions of dollars more in overall federal spending, hence, the stalemate with President Trump and the Republicans over the current coronavirus funding bill.

The political stalemate in Washington over Covid legislation, combined with New York State’s fiscal crisis, leaves schoolchildren in public, private and parochial schools hostage to power politics. Many public schools refuse to open to in-person instruction, while parochial schools on much less money are providing in-person instruction as they struggle to survive financially.

The teachers unions are trying to have it both ways. Many local unions are refusing to work under the guise of health and safety, yet their state and national union leaders are allowing $60 to $70 billion in federal funding for schools to languish. In the meantime, children’s education and well-being suffers while public schoolteachers are still getting paid – though many will now face layoffs.

Federal money being proposed by both Republicans and Democrats could be readily available if the teacher unions demanded it. Such funding would obviate NYSUT’s frivolous lawsuit, prevent teacher layoffs from state school aid cuts, and provide for virtually unlimited supplies to improve health and safety in school buildings.

Teacher unions’ behavior at both the state level and in Washington demonstrates the old adage that public education policy is always about the adults, never the children. If the unions put children first, they would demand their allies in Congress pass education funding and get about the business of educating children.

Peter Murphy is Vice President of the Invest in Education Coalition (Twitter: @PeterMurphy26).

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