“Inequality in our public schools is the burning education issue of the day,” says Billy Easton, the executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education. “Raising the cap on privately run charter schools will do nothing to close the enormous inequality gap, in fact it will make it worse because charter schools suck money out of public school classrooms.”
The Alliance released a report early this week stating that education inequality has grown to record-breaking levels under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who called the subject “the civil rights issue of our time” only five years ago.
The difference in per-student spending rose by a little more than $700 during the first two years the governor was in office. In the 2012-13 school year, the 100 wealthiest school districts spent more than $2,700 per student while the poorest spent around $2,000.
Easton and the Alliance, along with the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and Opportunity Action, argue that this financial inequity is overwhelmingly to blame for the fact that 25 percent fewer students graduate in poorer districts and 32 percent fewer earn advanced Regents diplomas. They decry the disparity in course offerings, which leave students who graduate from poorer districts far behind those who are able to take more advanced courses and choose from multiple languages and arts programs.
According to the report, by disregarding the Campaign for Fiscal Equality court ruling of 2006 that found that New York was “violating its constitutional obligation to provide a ‘sound basic education’ for all resident children,” Cuomo’s policies have “led to troubling outcomes for students in high-needs districts.” (Attempts to remedy this failure were made in 2007 and 2008, but frozen funding and budget cuts began to undo any progress in 2009, with the most precipitous increase in unequal spending occurring during the first year of Cuomo’s tenure. )
Further, they say the governor’s 2014 property “tax freeze” increased inequality. “The Board of Regents has found that wealthy school districts receive the largest School Property Tax Relief (STAR) per pupil and that the poor districts receive the smallest,” reads the report. “Under the governor’s ‘tax freeze,’ residents of the 100 wealthiest school districts received $456 per pupil, while residents in the poorest received only $58 per pupil. This signature Cuomo policy, where the state pays the property tax increase for school districts, actually expanded inequality by $398 per pupil. These funds could have been used by Governor Cuomo to narrow the inequality gap. Instead, he expanded it even further.”
The financial inequity is further compounded by deficits that children in poorer districts already contend with, say local educators and administrators. Less resources, single-parent homes, foster homes, mental and health issues and dietary concerns are all much more prevalent in lower-income districts.
“We teach these kids, but we’re also the closest thing to a parent that some of them have,” said a local arts teacher who is frustrated by Cuomo’s reliance on test scores as the sole measure of a teacher’s success in the classroom. She believes that he fails to appreciate the the unique challenges faced by educators in lower-income districts. “Many just don’t have the same kind of support at home. They come to us several years behind kids their age in other districts or in charter schools and, often, with some serious emotional issues. Our measure of success in those circumstances is really about how much improvement they show, but getting them to score on tests at the same level as kids who have completely different backgrounds is just unrealistic.”
The report acknowledges that Cuomo did not create the problem of inequity in New York State education, but avers that he has significantly exacerbated the situation rather than taking much-needed steps to improve it. It points to New Jersey as an excellent example of how changes in funding can significantly improve student success rates and result in more equitable opportunities for those from low-income districts to attend good colleges and find good jobs.
“Unlike New York, New Jersey actually spends significantly more per pupil in poor communities than in rich ones,” reads page 7 of the report. “The outcomes are impressive. New Jersey is significantly outperforming New York in graduation rates for all groups of students—including low income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, black students and Hispanic students.”
And it offers solutions.
“For New York State to end inequality in our schools the state must make a four-year commitment to fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Our schools are owed $5.9 billion in Foundation Aid and Gap Elimination Adjustment funding.
If the state provides the funding that is due to school districts in Foundation Aid and GEA, as it committed in the resolution of the CFE case, it would close the inequality gap by $3,088 per student.”
Other proposed solutions include:
Fulfilling the universal, full-day pre-K commitment made under the CFE resolution; making an earnest commitment to supporting community schools that bring together academic education and youth development with social and health needs, which have an impressive success rate; focusing on ensuing quality course programming for all districts; providing for the needs of English language learners; and increasing school aid by $2.2 billion—including full funding for Foundation Aid and the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which the report claims would reduce the inequality gap by more than $3,000 per student.
Hundreds of education advocates and supporters gathered inside the Capitol on Monday to support of education equality. as part of a national effort called Moral Monday. The Alliance joined NYSUT, the American Federation of Teachers, Citizen Action of New York, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, New York State NAACP, Strong Economy for All Coalition, United Federation of Teachers, and the Working Families Party to challenge the governor and call for change.
“How we ensure that every child has the right to a high-quality, constitutional, well-funded, diverse public education,” said keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. William Barber, “says something about the soul of our state.”
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