Public Education Is Under Attack

Yesterday, public school advocates rallied at the New York state capitol to call for full state funding of public education. Participants held “R.I.P.” tombstone signs of the programs, classes, staff and resources that their schools have had to cut over the past five years—arts, languages, small class sizes, academic support services, magnet programs. All the things that serve what politicians like to call “21st century skills.”

The city of Albany’s school district is facing a $6.2 million budget deficit next year, thanks to a combination of reduced state aid, funding being bled off to charter schools (with yet another one proposed), and an arbitrary tax cap above which a super majority is needed to pass the budget. Not mention being supposed to roll out a whole new set of standards and the testing that goes with them.

The proposed cuts to school programs and staffing have Albany public school parents in panic, as well they should.

Now, there’s a place for healthy discussion about our priorities within a budget, and there will always be some trade-offs because funds won’t be unlimited. Money is no cure-all if not well applied, but not enough funds is a guaranteed problem.

If parents are roused by the fear of cuts to beloved programs to start asking questions such as why administrator raises aren’t on the list of potential cuts, that’s a good thing. What should be done about the deficit is a bigger and more complicated question than I can address right now, and I’m not going to say that the right decisions are always being proposed.

But as we have those conversations, let’s not forget that the major problem is the existence of that deficit: Despite pretty words, our school systems are being systematically starved. Thanks to the state’s “gap elimination adjustment,” school aid is still millions of dollars below 2008–2009 levels, and costs have not, shall we say, gone down. In Albany, specifically, this carries a particular sting, since our taxpayers bear a higher burden trying to fund our schools due to the huge amount of tax-exempt property within our borders, which is largely the state’s. Not to put too fine a point on it, the state owes us.

Not to mention that funding school systems by local property tax is an inherently inequitable method of funding it in the first place, only exacerbated by the tax cap. A wealthy town with a low tax rate and strong tax base can easily vote to override the property tax cap; struggling cities on whom those wealthy towns rely for services, jobs, culture, and the care and education of their region’s low-wage workers, have a harder time. State education aid is supposed to add a measure of fairness to this system by smoothing out the extreme disparities somewhat; it doesn’t go far enough.

Add to that that the city of Albany has far, far more than its fair share of charter schools, and you have a school district that is being hamstrung in trying to do its job. Study after study shows that the minority of charters that do produce better results than their public counterparts do so because their demographics are different—they have few special education students, fewer English language learners, higher levels of motivated parents, and many unofficially force out students who aren’t performing to improve their graduation rates. But they are costing the district $35 million a year.

Oh, and elementary school enrollment is up, as staff are being cut left and right.

Forcing further cuts and reorganizations on cash-strapped school districts, especially those serving overwhelming low-income populations, and then punishing them when those families with choices flee and those who remain struggle to thrive and learn (as measured by distinctly non­­–21st century style standardized testing regimes) is sick and twisted.

Cuomo’s budget includes property tax breaks for the wealthy and a tax break for manufacturers north of Poughkeepsie, among other measures. But in a recent study of the fastest growing companies about their location decisions, only 5 percent even mentioned taxes. Their top concern? “Talent.” (Also very high: being in a place they and their top talent want to live, which incidentally includes school systems they want to send their kids to.)

If we want to strengthen New York’s economy, we need to give our school systems the resources they need to continue what’s working and make intentional, careful plans, to replace what isn’t. The kind of desperate “What can we get away with dropping?” going on here and in too many other places doesn’t create any kind of “efficiency.” It just reinforces existing inequities  and smacks of the old joke “beatings will continue until morale improves.”

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on March 12, 2014.)

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