Unfinished battle for school funding

OPINION

The following testimony, slightly abridged here, was presented to the New York City Council Commission on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Jan. 13.

I have two children in elementary school in the Bronx and one in high school in Manhattan, and I am the chairperson of the New York State Communist Party, whose members have been active on education issues for many years.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds … until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice … until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education.”

He said further: “Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly.”

I want to make four points:

One: Today we are discussing the best way to spend the education money that our children so desperately need and to which our state’s high court has ruled they are legally entitled. But until that money is in the bank, or at least in the pipeline, we still have work to do. Last year’s state budget had a multibillion-dollar shortfall, and I’m sure no one thinks this year’s budget will be anything less than a battle. This goes for the city, too. Other school systems have been found in contempt of state constitutions by the courts, and yet nothing has changed. We can’t allow the hard-won victory of the Campaign for Fiscal Equality (CFE) to go that route. Nor can we allow education funding to be counterposed to Medicaid spending, or any other social program.

Two: I read the transcript of the council’s last hearing on class size, and I was amazed that there is that much to say about it. One teacher, 24 kids at least — we can all do that math. The problem is when the argument becomes a counterposing of smaller classes vs. better-trained teachers. That is the wrong argument — we can and should have both. Obviously the best teachers will deal the best with large classes — but teachers are not supermen nor saints, and we shouldn’t ask them to be. Smaller classes will benefit every child, and should be a bottom line.

Three: On teacher training and quality: Yes, we should invest in recruiting and training the best teachers. But the starting point for teachers’ ability to do the best possible job has to include a fair union contract, with good pay, benefits and working conditions. We should stand by the teachers and their union against the mayor’s intransigence and union-busting (and that’s exactly what it is — look at the day care workers, four years without a contract). It’s an outrage that the teachers have been without a contract as long as they have. We parents and elected officials can defend teachers’ union rights without sacrificing the quality of our kids’ education — that’s another false and downright pernicious argument. Well-paid and well-respected teachers, schools that are safe and clean and thoroughly funded and supported — that’s the basis for the harmony between teachers, parents and kids that we all want in our schools.

Lastly: My second-graders’ school is in a converted car dealership building. The inside is bright and clean, but there is no gym and no auditorium, and subway tracks are just yards from the windows. This year, because we were required to add a class, the library was squeezed into the staff room. My son’s high school has no room for his basketball team, so they practice at Chelsea Piers, which means a minimum of 40 minutes travel after school, and about an hour and a half back home.

Some might say these are minor complaints. A library — a luxury. Basketball practice — optional. I recognize that relative to some conditions that prevail in the worst schools in the city, these are minor. Funding should go to the worst schools first. But my point is that we shouldn’t settle. Not on toilet paper in the bathrooms, not on class size. Until every child in New York City attends a school with good facilities and supplies, small classes, and well-paid, well-trained teachers, we shouldn’t settle. If the many people involved in the long struggle around CFE had settled, we wouldn’t be here. I’m afraid we’ll still be asked to settle, and the struggle still hasn’t been won.

This is a rich city in a rich state in a very rich nation – a nation which spends $4 billion a month on the Iraq war, a state which has cut taxes on its richest residents, a city where fabulously wealthy Sutton Place residents pay $1 dollar rent a year for 50 years to have a private garden along the East River. The money is there and we have to continue to fight for it. Let us be dissatisfied until all of our kids attend great schools. It’s as simple as that.



Elena Mora (emora@cpusa.org) lives in New York City and is chair of the New York State Communist Party.