Universal Pre-K Has A New Best Friend

Suzi Oppenheimer

By Marc Humbert

Senior Writer from On Board: The Voice of the Public School Leadership 

The new chairwoman of the Senate’s Education Committee has an ambitious agenda for New York’s schools.

"If I could get universal pre-K down to age 3, I’d do it in a heartbeat," Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer told On Board during a wide-ranging interview in her corner office in Albany’s Legislative Office Building.

Oppenheimer, a former local PTA president, had been the ranking minority member on the Senate Education Committee for more than a decade. She took the helm of the committee after the 2008 elections gave Democrats the Senate majority for the first time since 1965.

The timing coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"Can you believe it?" she said with an expression that combined woe and mirth. "I have been wanting to be education chair for a long time, but I don’t know if I would have chosen this year to attain that august position."

Oppenheimer said that given the state’s fiscal issues, she is looking for ways to help school districts without adding to the local or state tax burden.

Among the ideas she is pushing are several that NYSSBA has championed, including a paperwork reduction bill that would trim the number of reports districts must file.

"It’s a horror," she said of the current requirements. "This has passed in the Senate, so now we just have to entice the Assembly to come along."

She also wants BOCES given additional authority to provide consolidated services, perhaps even for municipalities within their boundaries.

Another priority is a circuit-breaker plan to limit the percentage of a family’s income that can go to school property taxes, a separate funding stream for charter schools and more money for libraries.

"I have a wonderful bill that I put in last year which would put the responsibility for the pension plan (payments from schools) at the state level," she said. "It seemed like a good idea. It’s still a good idea, but it is going to have to wait."

While Oppenheimer said the fiscal crisis limits what she can do for schools, she said her new position will allow her to be a more powerful advocate for special education, early learning and special act school districts.

"For my penny, I would say education is the answer to just about any problem," she said.

Oppenheimer’s husband, Martin, is a partner in Proskauer Rose, a New York City law firm whose clients include Deutsche Bank, Major League Baseball, the New York Stock Exchange, The New York Times, Walt Disney Productions and Madonna.

Although she attended private middle and high schools, she and her husband sent their four children to public schools.

"I have often said, I came out of private school, but I wasn’t damaged by it," she said with a laugh.

Among the issues that Oppen-heimer will have to deal with is competition for resources among different areas of the state, which sometimes can take on a partisan flavor.

Asked about Republican Sen. Charles Fuschillo’s complaints that the new state budget shortchanged Long Island on school aid, Oppenheimer, 74, got feisty.

"Long Island always makes out better than the rest of the state. They have for 30 years," she said.