DeVos, tuition-free college, unfunded mandates hot topics at lobbying event

Thiele Palumbo

Speaking before a crowd of more than 250 representatives from schools across Suffolk County Saturday, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) expressed disappointment in the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Repeating a statement he previously made on social media, Mr. Zeldin said he’s “not a big fan” of President Donald Trump’s choice as an adviser on education policies and programs.

“I’m probably being candid with you in a way our president would not like, but I’m not a big fan [of Ms. DeVos],” Mr. Zeldin said to a round of applause from the crowd at the 13th annual Longwood Legislative Breakfast, which included administrators from the Shoreham-Wading River School District. “The federal government needs to do more to honor its commitment to the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] and it sounded to me from the hearing that the nominee didn’t even know what that was.”

Mr. Zeldin also suggested Ms. DeVos’ perspective on public school education in her home state of Michigan is different from the Long Island experience.

“We have the greatest public schools in the country,” the congressman said. “I am not by any means anti-private school. I’m for a quality education wherever you can find it and our schools are great.”

The event featured more than a dozen questions asked of legislators by students from Suffolk schools and presentations from Eastern Suffolk Boces Chief Operating Officer Julie Davis Lutz and New York State Council of School Superintendents executive director Charles Dedrick.

The question asked of Mr. Zeldin was the only time the name of Ms. Devos, a longtime advocate of charter schools and a school voucher system, was mentioned during the more than three-hour lobbying session. But her upcoming Senate confirmation vote still loomed over the event. Though no U.S. Senators were present, several protesters held up signs outside the Middle Island school asking legislators to reject her nomination. And Mr. Dedrick opened up his presentation with a line about something on the horizon in the coming days that educators will likely be powerless to stop, though he spinned it into a joke about the New England Patriots winning another Super Bowl.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (left) and Senator Phil Boyle (R-Islip). (Credit: Grant Parpan)
Mr. Zeldin (left) speaks with Senator Phil Boyle (R-Islip). (Credit: Grant Parpan)

The event centered mostly around state education issues, however, with most of the discussion focused on state aid, unfunded mandates and the property tax levy cap. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free tuition to qualifying students at state colleges and universities was also a topic, with the legislators present saying they do not support the measure, which they called a political ploy as the governor mulls a presidential run.

“It’s a mockery of a travesty of a sham,” said Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who added that he believes the state would be better off placing an emphasis on expanding pre-K programs.

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, pointed out that the governor simultaneously plans to raise tuition for some students.

“We have two different things being said,” Mr. LaValle told the audience.

Other legislators suggested that they liked the idea of free tuition, but found it to be a far-fetched concept.

“I’d love to see everyone get a free college education,” said Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk). “It’s just not something we can afford right now.”

Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown) noted that a lack of funding was “the common thread” in concerns raised by students and educators at Saturday’s event and the responses they received from lawmakers.

Legislators blamed Mr. Cuomo’s failure to deliver on a promise to provide relief from unfunded mandates on the difficulties schools are having navigating the state property tax levy cap, which has once again been set below 2 person for next school year. Mr. Thiele said a panel the governor put together to study mandates “accomplished nothing.”

“The only place you can find members of the Mandate Relief Council now is on the back of a milk carton,” he said.

Calling the politics of unfunded mandate relief “very messy,” Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) said he supports setting up regional committees to present ideas for mandate relief to local legislators across the state.

Top Caption: Mr. Thiele (from right to left) with Mr. Palumbo, Mr. Murray and Assemblyman Al Graf (R-Holbrook). (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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