Monday, December 23, 2013

Something's Rotting in the State of New York

Something’s rotting in the state of New York, and it’s not the apples.

Due to a property tax cap passed in 2011—which requires localities and school districts to raise taxes no more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation—funding for schools withers in the meadow, as tests and class sizes grow all around it.  With the stench of decay thickening in the midst of a NYSUT lawsuit over the tax cap, the state recently argued in court that education is “not a fundamental right.”  This should surprise President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who’ve called education the “civil rights issue of our time”, even awarding New York $700 million as part of the Race to the Top (RTTT) contest.
 Are “civil” rights “fundamental” rights? If so, shouldn’t the federal government ask for its money back from a state which passes laws to undermine this civil right?

New York has outpaced most states in the implementation of Common Core testing and a more rigid teacher evaluation system (APPR), two key requirements of RTTT. While these programs have been controversial because of their emotional and monetary costs, the tax cap has been largely ignored as an issue, with many New Yorkers against Common Core, APPR, and InBloom but in favor of the tax cap. In the coming years, thanks to the tax cap, many districts will attempt to implement these programs and other unfunded mandates with fewer teachers and fewer resources, as they watch their RTTT and reserve funds dry up, with or without the reforms.  With funding for education in New York already at a 20-year low, the tax cap has the potential to damage New York’s rural and suburban schools more than testing, APPR, and InBloom COMBINED.  You can’t reform insolvency.

Albany claims that the tax cap is not a state dictate. After all, local voters can override it. Yet a school district seeking to surpass the cap must receive approval from a 60-percent supermajority of voters.  The law therefore undermines the essence of democracy—simple majority rule. In New York, one person now equals less than one vote, and a minority of voters can determine how much money schools receive. In the face of this, what district would risk having its budget voted down? Out of only 28 districts that attempted an override in 2012, 21 failed. However, 14 of the 21 that failed received more than 50 percent approval.  Our kids deserve no less than a majority of minds determining what goes into and comes out of their schools. After all, how can we call public education a democratic institution if a mere minority of citizens determines its funding?

Hatched in an inequitable egg, the tax cap breeds even more inequality once unleashed across the state. Rich communities who stay under the cap have more money (for now) to play with than poor communities, as spending is limited to two percent of the previous year’s budget.  According to a NYSUT affidavit, “The chasm between [rich and poor districts] will only widen if lower performing districts continue to be deprived of local control over budgeting, particularly in light of the state’s failure to meet its funding obligations.” For example, in 2012-2013, the wealthiest districts were able to raise their tax levy per pupil over $500 dollars more than the poorest districts. Though test scores are hardly an indicator of academic superiority, it should come as no surprise that students in wealthier districts also outperform their poorer counterparts on state exams.  Poverty at home conjoins with poverty at school, spawning a preternatural beast set on devouring our kids’ futures.   

With the idiot wind of the tax cap at his back, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to withhold even more money from schools. His Tax Relief Commission, led by former governor George Pataki, recently recommended rebates over the next two years for homeowners in districts which do not override the tax cap. In essence, districts will be awarded for spending less money on education, while Cuomo cuts corporate taxes and pushes casino construction throughout the state.  The self-proclaimed “lobbyist for the students” suddenly cares more about gambling than education. This proposal, along with the tax cap, only exacerbates the economic divide throughout the state, as residents in more affluent districts will bite the better half of the apple. Oddly, much like Arne Duncan, the only money Cuomo can find for schools is through gimmicky competitions, not realizing that education is not “bowling for dollars”, as one Long Island superintendent quipped. 

Opponents of New York’s tax cap are not pro-taxes, but pro-democracy. A democracy depends on an educated populace. Ironically, many of those first to slash education budgets equate education with our “global economic competitiveness.”  Regardless of whether it helps or hinders our economy, education is weakened when citizens are incentivized to underfund it.  Public education feeds on fair and equitable funding, not worm-infested refuse.  Let the simple majority determine how much our kids should get before there’s nothing left.


No comments:

Post a Comment