New York governor Andrew Cuomo this week took another giant step on his march to the left. With Vermont senator Bernie Sanders standing by his side, Cuomo proposed a program of free tuition for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers attending schools in the state and city university system—including two-year community colleges. The plan, put forward at Queens’s LaGuardia Community College on Tuesday, would provide benefits to students from families earning $125,000 or less annually, at an estimated annual cost to taxpayers of $163 million.

The price tag seems modest, given the governor’s claim that 940,000 New York families would be eligible for free tuition. Albany already subsidizes college students to the tune of some $1 billion annually. But low-balling cost estimates for popular social initiatives is what politicians do, and none does it more flagrantly than a New York pol. The Empire State’s perennially budget-busting Medicaid program was marketed 50 years ago as a means to save money. It went on to help gut the upstate economy.

As proposed, Cuomo’s tuition program will be limited to U.S. citizens enrolled full-time at SUNY and CUNY institutions. It’s not clear yet whether enrollment in the university systems’ elaborate remedial-education programs will be covered. This inevitably will become an issue as graduates of so many of New York’s abysmally performing urban high schools come to discover just how little their diplomas are really worth. What the governor and his socialist partner announced Tuesday is something of a bait-and-switch—or, rather, to shift metaphors, an elaborate effort to slap a coat of paint on a hopelessly corroded public-education system and pronounce it worthy.

All other things being equal, an aggressive tuition-assistance program for working-class families could pay solid dividends. New York’s economy is so sophisticated these days that it’s absurd to believe that a high school education alone is sufficient preparation for a productive life, even if the diploma comes from a reasonably functioning high school. New York City claims that Gotham’s high school graduation rate is approaching 70 percent. But that’s an ephemeral figure, given the ease with which GED and other alternative programs can camouflage true graduation numbers.

By and large, New York City high schools aren’t producing college-ready graduates. Using City University remediation standards as benchmarks, StudentsFirstNY, a school-choice activist group, last summer published a study showing that just 34 of New York City’s 428 high schools prepare 75 percent or more of their students to do college-level work. Moreover, fully one-half of the graduates of another 340 schools were unprepared for higher education. Factor in that 30 percent nominal dropout rate and it all adds up to a profoundly depressing return on the city’s $24 billion annual education budget. Free college tuition won’t mean much to kids who can’t do college work, or who never graduate from high school in the first place.

So the governor essentially is proposing a program to provide high-profile assistance to the relatively few big-city students who can benefit from it, while masking the overall failure of urban public education in New York. Cuomo presented himself as an education governor early on—“Consider me the lobbyist for the students,” he declared in 2012—and to some degree he delivered. New York’s charter-school movement is a national model, thanks largely to Cuomo. And he made a sincere effort to impose meaningful testing and teacher-evaluation standards on the state’s education bureaucracy.

Time—and teacher-union politics—wore him down. New York City, with Cuomo’s implied imprimatur, has just abandoned meaningful teacher evaluations. The coming legislative session may effectively mark the end of the state’s charter-school experiment. The erstwhile students’ lobbyist, it appears, has gone to work for the other side.

Cuomo’s tuition proposal is essentially a cash trickle-down benefiting survivors of the system. It seems meant to mask his surrender on core reforms. Certainly the public-education unions will be pleased by the governor’s new direction, which is in tune with his abandonment of centrist positions generally.

The shift doubtless was motivated in part by the endless corruption scandals that have stained Albany generally, and Cuomo in particular. The governor was also badly battered from the left during his reelection run two years ago, and he has come under increasing progressive pressure as he considers a third term. November’s election returns may well have opened opportunities for him on the national level.

Whatever his reasons, Cuomo’s leftward tack is real. The governor who once touted tax restraint and economic reform has morphed into the architect of minimum-wage hikes, crippling new burdens for business, union alliances, and—over the New Year’s holiday—even a prison-sentence commutation for a notorious cop-killer. Count on the new-look Cuomo sticking around through his 2018 reelection campaign. Beyond that is anybody’s guess, but the governor clearly is keeping his options open.

Photo by governorandrewcuomo/Flickr


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