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. 

October 21, 2016

Keeping Blacks from learning to read

GUEST: Paul Donnelly, political activist and teacher at Poughkeepsie High School, talks about charter schools, public school funding and the underlying racism of our educational system.

We had a wide ranging discussion about the funding of public education, and the role of districts in the school to prison pipeline. Paul has taught in Poughkeepsie for 12 years.

Some of his information was hopeful. He didn't think the Poughkeepsie HS could be blamed for Black students going into the prison industrial complex. According to Paul, the high school tries very hard to keep the police from disciplinary decisions. He wasn't so positive about the new 200 million dollar jail in the county. Why would anyone spend that much money when the schools are crying for more funds? Perhaps its indicative of the general racism that sends blacks to jail while funding white schools. 

We talked about the vast differences in stop and frisk between Blacks and whites. All the towns and small cities in the area stop Blacks from 3 to 4 times more often. And although drug addiction is about the same for both races, arrests and convictions are much more prevalent for people of color.

One of the links I put on http://www.classwars.org for the interview compares spending on schools in Poughkeepsie and the surrounding almost all white, suburban schools. There is a difference, but not the dramatic one I had expected. 

We had just gotten into the damage 9 billionaires are doing to public education in this country: 9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York’s Public Schools. Philosophically, these billionaires want to send their kids to $50,000 boarding schools while they dismantle poor people's right to a free education. They don't believe in learning, but in rote memory for the poor. High stakes testing is, according to Noam Chomsky, the way "to destroy any meaningful education process." The very rich want to limit thinking to their privileged class, much like the slaveholders in the south wanted to keep Blacks from learning to read. 

October 14, 2016

Rethinking everything

GUEST: Jeff Golden, political activist and co-founder of the Common Fire Foundation, talks about justice for Samuel Harrell and Beacon Prison Action.

Can leaders like Jeff Golden really change the brutal and racist criminal justice system? Organizations like Beacon Prison Action can embarrass politicians and district attorneys. The death of Samuel Harrell is a good example. The man was killed by a group of prison guards called the "beat-up squad." Harrell was disoriented after coming out of solitary confinement and said he thought he was going home. The Beat-up Squad then punched him, stomped on him and then threw him down a flight of stairs.

How is our prison system a part of a civilized country? Why aren't murders like this ever punished? Reading about Harrell's murder is shocking:

Original NY Times article about Sam Harrell

It is clear that we have perceptions of the United States that don't bear too much scrutiny. We murder millions in our foreign wars. We support the most brutal of racist regimes like Saudi Arabia, Honduras and Israel. Our own CIA tortures innocent people for decades and then destroy the evidence. We live in two worlds. In our fantasy world, the American Empire is a decent, law abiding country we can be proud of. Look beneath the surface and we find something else, the reality of how empires work. They prosper on a sea of blood.

Our US prisons reflect the tortures at Abu Graib and Guantanamo. The brutality, often senseless, reflect the same mentality, and the values of the elites who order these atrocities are probably not going to change very much.

Here is to people like Jeff Golden who fight the good fight. All of us must resist the racism and murder that is so endemic in a country ruling the world by force. America was built on the genocide of one race and the forced slavery of another. We have to rethink everything before a real change is possible.

October 6, 2016

Not my Judaism, not my country.

GUEST: Marjorie Leopold, local activist, teacher and producer, talks about forming a new human rights organization in the Mid Hudson Valley, a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

This interview had a very low volume when we played it today. I fixed it when I created the podcast version. If you couldn't hear it very well live, try clicking on http://www.classwars.org and listening to the enhanced interview. 

Once we got through with the nuts and bolts of how to form a Jewish Voice for Peace, we talked about the fight for Jewish identity within local communities. Of course, the fight is everywhere now: in the media, in the colleges, and in our government. 

JVP is the most progressive group out there, courageously demanding that their Jewish faith not be used to defend Israel's apartheid treatment of the Palestinians. What religion would want to claim that war crimes represented the height of their moral worth? Making Israel into a religion will have a lasting negative effect on the Jewish people. History will remember them as victims of genocide who became perpetrators. 

How will history remember me, a veteran who has lived comfortably all his life while his country ravaged the Third World with death squads, invasions and drone attacks? Since World War II, the United States has established itself as the country without a conscience, all the while praising itself as the beacon of human rights and democracy. What butchery has been done in my name, and what gross hypocrisy propagated by my society.

How am a different from Jews living in Israel? In fact, the two societies are blood relations when it comes to imperialism. The only hope for either country is to be remade into a just and law abiding democracy that rejects militarism and the racism. That's my goal for the United States, and the only way I can live my life in the belly of the beast.