Karen Magee: Time To Help Public Schools Turn The Corner

Nov 27, 2014

It's been a long, brutal winter -- metaphorically -- for public education.

In the six years since Wall Street's collapse triggered the Great Recession, New York's public schools and colleges have been stuck out in the cold. Deep budget cuts starved public schools of the support they need to adequately serve the nearly 3 million schoolchildren who we all, I think, agree deserve a great education.

Billions of dollars in state funding disappeared. The state budget ax -- which swung without sympathy for geography or need -- forced school districts to chop programs and staff -- about 35,000 layoffs and job cuts from 2008 to today.

To be truthful, for the past two years, state funding has been okay -- although not overly generous. Maybe we can call it a "January thaw." Still, the fact remains that more than half of the state's school districts are operating today with less state funding than this time in 2008.

To add insult to injury, Albany enacted a property tax cap that strips away local control of schools. The cap makes it nearly impossible for local voters to decide to invest more of their own local tax dollars in support of their children than Albany mandates.

If that's the depth of education's winter, hopefully spring is just around the corner for schools. Ironic, isn't it?  Just as the real weather around here is getting blustery and the snow starts to fly, public education may be feeling the first rays of a warming sun.

New York State now has a budget surplus -- some estimates put it at more than $5 Billion dollars. Yes, that's Billion with a B.  An improving economy and settlements of several lawsuits involving major banks has infused the state treasury with new money.

While many have ideas on how that surplus should be spent, the Educational Conference Board -- a coalition of major statewide education groups, including New York State United Teachers -- recently released a thoughtful report on how New York State could use some of that surplus to help public education turn the corner.

E-C-B was conscious of Governor Cuomo's admonition that the surplus should not be used for unsustainable spending, but rather for thoughtful investments where they can make the most good.

E-C-B wants the Governor and Legislature to approve a state education budget that reflects modestly higher costs -- about 3 percent -- and to pay schools about $300 million in prior year claims. That's money already owed to school districts, sometimes for years. In addition, education groups want the state to accelerate the elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has drained money from districts to help close the state's budget deficit --a deficit which no longer exists.

And, we want new state money to expand pre-kindergarten programs upstate.  Just about every piece of educational research says quality early childhood education programs are a smart investment if we are serious about ending the achievement gap.

It adds up to a $1.9 Billion state funding increase for public education.  It's money that will help school districts begin to turn the corner, and provide the programs and services that New York's students need.

As president of NYSUT, I promise that teachers and parents will be a strong voice for increased school aid. We will be a voice that can't be ignored.

In a fiscal crisis, some belt-tightening was understandable. But, with the state enjoying a $5 Billion budget surplus, it's way past time to make the needed investments in schools and colleges.

This year, there are no excuses.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

 

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