You might think we would be used to it by now. The scenario hasn't changed since Gov. Cuomo took office: The governor announces an executive budget proposal that underfunds public education, treats public higher education as an afterthought and introduces new initiatives that further erode an already-shaky middle class.
This year, however, the scenario seems even crueler. It's not the most draconian proposal he's ever put forth. The executive budget, admittedly, includes some proposals for which NYSUT has been a strong advocate — long-term investments in pre-K education, more money for after-school programs and a ban on subjecting our youngest students to standardized tests, to name some important ones.
But this executive budget fails New Yorkers in many ways and misses the opportunity to provide needed help by accessing a $2 billion surplus. The governor instead has chosen to give tax breaks to the wealthy and little help to those who need it most.
Its failure is magnified against the backdrop of poverty and struggle that too many New Yorkers live with every day. I saw that up close on recent visits to Salamanca in southwestern New York and in Port Byron in central New York. There, our students and their families face economic challenges that directly impact how they learn and how they view their futures. The experiences of rural poverty are different, but no less debilitating, than urban or suburban poverty.
In both towns, the school, a large building with several campuses within its walls, is more modern and welcoming than one might have anticipated. Salamanca, of course, is profiting from the Seneca Casino — although disputes with New York state have dried up those dollars in the past. And Port Byron has benefited from leveraging its community's financial struggles to win significant grants. As a result, the school has become an oasis for students in these communities.
Both districts embrace their communities well beyond the school day, and their staffs are amazingly connected to the families they serve. Teachers and support personnel in each district know far too well that once a child of poverty is dropped off at a rural home, she or he remains isolated in the grips of generational poverty until the school bus reappears the next morning.
The families of Port Byron and Salamanca aren't alone, of course. As reported by NYSUT United late last year, New York state, despite its abundant wealth, has the 25th highest poverty rate in the nation. More alarming, one in four of our children lives in poverty. Poverty matters.
Students in high-need, underfunded school districts fared far worse in last year's state assessments than did students in wealthier districts. That is not an anomaly or offered as an excuse. The ravages of hunger, homelessness, sickness and troubled home lives take a huge toll on learning and success.
That's why the governor's woefully inadequate budget proposal for education is so insensitive. It not only fails to provide adequate resources and support to our public schools and university systems — the very best way out of poverty for New York's low-income families — it offers more than $1 billion in new tax breaks to millionaires and Wall Street banks, further widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society.
At NYSUT, we are pushing back against policies that weaken the middle class and do harm to the New Yorkers we serve, especially our children.
We have pushed back against the devastating property tax cap by challenging its constitutionality in the courts.
We have pushed back against the failed policies of State Education Commissioner John King Jr. by proposing at our upcoming convention a no-confidence resolution that calls for his removal by the Board of Regents.
We have pushed back against chronic underfunding of public higher education by launching a campaign called "Keep New York a state of mind," which advocates a proactive plan for ensuring quality, opportunity and access at CUNY, SUNY and our community colleges.
And we are pushing back against lawmakers who don't make the connection that an investment now in public education, pre-K through post-graduate, will ensure that our next generation is ready to contribute to the state's economy.
Every member, every constituency group and every local — large and small — understands the value of the work we do and why we must continue our advocacy on their behalf and on behalf of those we serve. And we will!
Note: Your comments on this column or any issue you wish to share directly with me are welcomed. Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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