Monday, October 31, 2016

Public schools need proper funding

Ten years ago, a group of parents from New York City sued the state claiming that children were not being provided an adequate public education. This lawsuit became known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals found that New York state was violating students constitutional rights to a “sound and basic education” by leaving schools without necessary funding.  In response to this landmark court ruling, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, in conjunction with the New York State Legislature, enacted a statewide resolution. Together they created a statewide school aid formula based on student poverty concentration and district wealth. Over $5 billion was supposed to be provided in operating aid over four years.

However, in 2009, after only two years of equitable funding, school aid was frozen. Citing the financial crisis, the state enacted the Gap Elimination Adjustment (“GEA”), which helped balance its annual budget, but only by cutting $2.1 billion in education aid. Following the implementation of the GEA, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed another case specifically on behalf of students in Newburgh, Port Jervis, Kingston, Jamestown, Mount Vernon, Niagara Falls, Poughkeepsie and Utica. These districts all have low property wealth, higher than average local property taxes, significant family poverty and high student needs, including students with disabilities and English-language learners.

During the testimony, district officials described how budget cuts caused the severe reduction or complete elimination of staff, services and programs essential to provide students with the opportunity to succeed academically. As a consequence, student achievement in all eight districts is well below level. Tragically, in September, Ulster and Albany County Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor rejected the suit, saying that “student performance was undeniably inadequate but the plaintiffs did not prove the state has not met its (financial) obligation to them.”

The advocacy group “Alliance for Quality Education” plans to appeal the decision. In support, earlier this month a group of parents, advocates, community members, and educators marched from New York City to Albany to demand fair and equitable funding for all public schools. On their way, marchers stopped at Poughkeepsie High School and held a press conference where teachers shared personal stories of the challenges urban schools face due to the funding cuts.

The cuts in state aid is forcing teachers, guidance counselors and administrators to do more with less. This puts a constant strain on the already overburdened staff at high-needs schools such as Poughkeepsie High School. For example, PHS has had to lay off many teachers and staff. PHS has only one school social worker and one psychologist for over 1,200 students.  Funding cuts have also forced the district to offer fewer classes and curb extracurricular activities. I deal with this firsthand as an advisor for the school newspaper. We used to have money to run the club, but now we have to do fundraisers to keep the school newspaper going.

Today, the gap in spending between the wealthiest schools and the poorest is almost $10,000 per pupil.  If New York continues to spend less on educating our low-income students and students of color, it will leave them hopeless and oppressed. When a society neglects and ignores the most basic needs of its citizens, it will leave them impoverished, uneducated, and unemployed. This leads to feelings of bitterness and more crime. The way I see this situation is that we can either educate or incarcerate. We have sufficient amount of resources to incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, but apparently, we can’t afford to give all students a sound education. If we continue down the path we are on now, we will doom generations of students to a life of crime, imprisonment or unemployment.

However, It is my hope that we can work together to build a society of hope and compassion. A society that puts a priority on jobs and education instead of jails and incarceration. In the words of Langston Hughes, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?” I hope we never have to find out.

Paul Donnelly has been a teacher for 12 years in the Poughkeepsie City School District. He also has taught at Vassar College for the past two years. 

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