Many listeners of this radio station awakened recently to the news that the teachers union has gone to court seeking to have New York State’s property tax cap declared unconstitutional.
The property tax cap is, understandably, very popular. And, as president of New York State United Teachers, I suspect our decision to challenge it will be unpopular.
There’s more to this story, however, and I want you to hear it from me.
Let me start by reminding everyone that teachers are taxpayers, too. We all feel the burden of rising school taxes.
But, teachers also see the devastating impact the property tax cap is having on public education. Recently, more than 1,000 people in New York’s Capital Region turned out for a forum on school finance. They learned that, because of the tax cap and the state’s failure to maintain its fair share of education spending, as many as 200 school districts statewide could face fiscal insolvency in the next two years.
As someone who spent 34 years in the classroom, most of that time teaching fourth-graders in a high-poverty school, I know how budget cuts impact children.
I also know about inequity and how disproportionate funding levels rob opportunities from children in many low-wealth communities.
One searing injustice with the current tax cap is that it locks in funding inequities already declared unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals.
The state’s highest court ruled in 2006 that New York’s education funding formula was unconstitutional because it denied children in poor communities their right to a sound, basic education. The state promised to invest billions to remedy its educational discrimination but — when the recession hit — the state broke its promise... abandoned its commitment... and walked away.
The tax cap compounds that inequity. By limiting the ability to raise needed revenues locally in order to offset the state's failure to meet its obligation, the cap effectively insures that students in high-need school districts, where the achievement gap is greatest, will continue to face an inescapable cycle of poverty and inequality.
As educators, we cannot and will not turn our backs on those students or their communities.
Just as troublesome is the property tax cap’s requirement that 60 percent of voters are needed to approve any over-ride of the 2 percent cap.
This impacts every school district regardless of wealth. It makes a mockery of the democratic principle of one-person, one-vote — a principle protected by both the federal and state constitutions.
If we are all guaranteed equal protection under the law, why is the vote of a person who supports investing in good public schools worth less than someone who opposes what’s needed to provide a strong educational program?
Teachers — and the unions they belong to — can’t — and won’t — sit idly while the public education system is devastated by cuts… and while the most vulnerable of our students are held down and held back by a politically popular but clearly discriminatory property tax cap.
Robert F. Kennedy reminded us that courage sometimes means doing what is unpopular. In his words, “Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it."
The truth about New York's unfair and unjust property tax cap is that it is destroying public education.
Teachers and their unions will walk with students and their schools… even when our path is unpopular.
Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of the New York State United Teachers.
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