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Bringing College Back to Prisons in New York

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the overseer of the state's massive budget, is turning to sources outside of Albany's bank account to begin a state-run college education program for inmates in some of New York's prisons.

By Tom Precious

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the overseer of the state's massive budget, is turning to sources outside of Albany's bank account to begin a state-run college education program for inmates in some of New York's prisons.

Cuomo also vowed to close more state prisons, though he offered no specifics.

"It's wrong to put people in cages and waste young lives," he said in Manhattan on Sunday.

After his idea to add more college opportunities in a handful of prisons flopped two years ago at the Capitol, Cuomo on Sunday said he will use a legal settlement controlled by the Manhattan district attorney and private dollars to offer public college courses in some state prisons.

"Prisons are not supposed to be a warehouse. ... It was supposed to be about rehabilitation," Cuomo said in announcing another try at a college education program for inmates.

In his speech Sunday, Cuomo also appeared to soften his rhetoric substantially from last year on the causes of public schools that are deemed to be "failing" as learning centers for their students. A year ago, Cuomo released a report showing 109,000 children across the state go to school in 178 persistently failing schools -- marked by high dropout rates, low test scores and other factors. At the time, he was pushing a plan to allow for outside takeover of failing schools and making it harder for teachers to get tenure.

On Sunday, he criticized "the bureaucracy" that resists change in the education system, but he talked of "community" school-type settings as the solution. "We want to take those failing schools and say, 'Look, the problem isn't just education,'" he said.

Cuomo said that if people think that the problems in such failing schools are teachers and the education system, "then you're missing the point, because the kids in those schools need a lot more than a teacher and normal education."

The Cuomo budget plan to be released Wednesday will call for $100 million to expand an array of services offered at failing schools. A precise breakdown by school was not available Sunday, but he suggested it will offer more money for nutrition, mentoring, afterschool, counseling and other programs in the failing schools. "Don't call it a school. Call it a community school," he said.

A Cuomo spokesman noted that community schools were added "as an eventual product of the process" involving failing schools. "This is consistent with that," the spokesman said.

Senate opposition killed Cuomo's 2014 proposal

Backed by studies showing inmates getting college or other education degrees have lower recidivism rates than others who get out of prison with no higher education, Cuomo said the prison education effort, run through the State University of New York and the City University of New York, will give some inmates a college education "so they come out stronger than they went in."

The governor pushed his plan at a Harlem church Sunday morning. When he proposed a similar plan two years ago, he did so during an appearance at an Albany church that was hosting a service for lawmakers gathered for the annual Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus weekend. The only difference this time was the absence Sunday of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was prominently featured at the 2014 Albany event standing alongside Cuomo; the two men have since been engaged in a nonstop feud.

The state retreated heavily a generation ago from college prison programs, though there are educational offerings at a number of facilities funded with private dollars. It was former President Bill Clinton who signed into law a measure cutting off Pell Grants for inmates to pay for college courses, and then-Gov. George Pataki in the mid-1990s followed by cutting state-funded teachers in prisons and barring inmates from participating in a state college aid program.

Cuomo's much-touted plan in 2014 died in the face of opposition in the Republican-led Senate. The chief argument against it was that the state should not spend money on prison inmates when those on the outside are increasingly unable to afford college tuition or are graduating with crushing debt loads.

Hopes rest on use of forfeiture fund

The Cuomo plan this year comes as the State University of New York is pressing to get renewed a law passed five years ago allowing the public college system to raise tuition each year without separate approval from the Legislature. In-state, undergraduate tuition has gone up about 30 percent during that period, and now SUNY wants Cuomo and lawmakers to give it the OK to continue what it bills as a "rational" tuition policy.

Cuomo believes his plan will sail this year because he is floating the use of a different funding mechanism than using money from the state's general fund. He now wants to tap a forfeiture fund controlled by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. as well as private groups for a program to cost $15 million.

"We have colleagues in Albany who are not ready to do that and don't want to pay for those programs ... I'll just find another way to get there," Cuomo said at the Harlem church Sunday morning of his inmate education plan.

The prison initiative is, however, modest compared with the college programs the state once offered inmates. Currently, 1,000 inmates are now enrolled in some type of college-level program, and the Cuomo administration said the additional $7.5 million funding from the Manhattan district attorney's fund will enable up to another 500 more to be enrolled each year. The state's prison system has about 50,000 inmates.

The prison college funding plan pushed Sunday comes after a week of Cuomo rolling out -- mostly through coordinated media leaks followed by personal appearances by Cuomo -- snippets of his 2016 budget that will be formally unveiled to lawmakers Wednesday at the Capitol.

Cuomo has been heavily focusing the past week on a major spending spree of capital projects. He has proposed everything from new roads and rail projects for Long Island, renovation of Penn Station and expansion of a convention center in Manhattan to another year of having taxpayers statewide bail out the Thruway Authority to help block toll hikes over the next several years.

(c)2016 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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