Chartock: Free tuition plan is Gov. Cuomo’s best idea since the SAFE Act


There are times that I scare myself. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve written that we have an obligation to offer free college education to those who qualify for entrance to our city and state universities. Governor Andrew Cuomo entered his office playing the role of a fiscal conservative. Then he almost got his electoral clock cleaned by Zephyr Teachout in a primary. Her success clearly demonstrated that Cuomo had deserted the ideals of the Democratic Party. Frankly, I think she scared the hell out of Cuomo and as a result, he has begun to unleash a whole bunch of really progressive ideas. One of these is free college tuition for those whose parents earn less than $125,000 dollars a year

I really don’t care whether he is acting out of selfish political self-interest. This is the best thing he has done since he incurred the wrath of the gun owners with his SAFE Act. We all know that those people at the bottom of the economic scale who go to the city and state universities have tuition assistance in the form of TAP money that can help them get through college. Unfortunately, this tends to breed class warfare between those hard-working middle class folks whose kids often to go into deep debt to get through and those at the very bottom, who get a much better deal.

I can’t begin to tell you how many of these angry people I hear from. By raising the gate so that the middle class kids get tuition help, Cuomo has evened the playing field. Of course, that doesn’t satisfy everyone since there are many middle class kids who attended the state and city universities in New York and who will be in debt for a long time to come. They don’t think this whole thing is fair. While I don’t blame them, you really do have to start somewhere just as you did with the Affordable Care Act and Social Security. This is the right thing to do.

Look, if we have a national credo, Republicans and Democrats alike, it comes out as “equality of opportunity.” We send our kids to public education: kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school and we stop at college. How can we have equality of opportunity if we stop at that level? When I entered Hunter College in 1959, the education was absolutely free. It didn’t cost a dime. I often think of all the kids I went to school with who have done so well in life but who could not have afforded to go to school if tuition was a hundred dollars. Based on how well so many of these students have done, we can only conclude that this idea is long overdue.

The overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has always been in favor of the concept of free tuition for middle class kids. The question is whether the Democratic breakaway group, the so-called Independent Democratic Conference who long ago sold their Democratic principles for some extra pieces of silver and influence to keep the Republicans in power, will go along with the Cuomo plan. If they don’t, we will see whether the Republican-led Senate will go for the free tuition. If they don’t, it will be one more nail in their political coffin as parents and students will never forget who did them in.

Cuomo will really have to stand behind his plan and break arms to make it happen. If he doesn’t, it will be just one more example of the difference between what he says he wants and what he actually wants.

Finally, I really don’t care if Andrew is following my game plan in making it easier for middle class kids to attend college. I don’t need the credit. I just feel good that he seems to be going in the right direction. I sure hope he follows through.