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."
On Feb. 20, NYSUT filed suit in State Supreme Court, in Albany, challenging the constitutionality of New York's property tax cap. I know this is the path of truth. How many walk down it has never deterred NYSUT. At the end of that very long day, I had a chance to thank those who worked tirelessly researching and preparing the case — and time to reflect on the moment.
Time to reflect on the truth The truth is the "great recession" and massive cuts in state aid have crippled school districts across the state. The property tax cap magnifies that devastation by severely limiting a local community's ability to address the needs of its students through its school budget.
The truth is the courts can't have it both ways. In the 1982 school funding lawsuit (Levittown v. Nyquist), the court ruled that, while significant inequities in school funding existed, "substantial local control" was a "rational basis" for allowing unequal state funding. While we reject that premise, the courts have placed a marker. They shouldn't now allow a property tax cap that seriously impairs a school district's "substantial local control" to raise revenue to support sound educational needs.
The truth is my "Yes" vote is as important as another person's "No" vote! "One person, one vote" remains a democratic principle embedded in our nation's value system. I have the same right as the next person to freely express my views with my vote. I'm not two-thirds of a person and my vote should not be treated as two-thirds of a vote. The 60 percent override provision violates my right to equal protection — I'd call it equal value — under the law.
The truth is citizens have the right to freely express their views through their vote. Requiring a notice on the ballot that discourages a person from voting to exceed the cap is prejudicial. It may not be voter suppression, but it borders on "vote" suppression.
The truth is, in reality, municipalities are treated differently than school districts under the cap. Municipalities require a 60 percent vote of the governing body (not voters) to override the cap, which in most cases is equal to a simple majority.
School districts are required to seek 60 percent of the voting public's approval, with the chilling effect of knowing that if they fail to override twice, the tax levy increase would be zero.
The truth is schools are financed inequitably in New York and many other states, as well. New York state's share of educational costs has plummeted. The more we depend on local property values to provide a sound, basic education, the more the achievement gap widens.
New York state currently funds education a billion dollars less than it did in 2008. In response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, the Legislature made a commitment to add $7 billion to the aid formula by 2011. It is now 2013 and the state is still $5 billion short.
How long can this be tolerated?
The governor's New NY Education Reform Commission and The Equity and Excellence Commission, a federal advisory committee, join many very credible voices detailing the inverse relationship between poverty and academic success. The property tax cap, if left in place, will enshrine the inequity that exists in New York and condemn tens of thousands of students to a vicious cycle of poverty as a result of being denied an equal educational opportunity.
NYSUT's constitutional challenge to the property tax cap is not about raising property taxes; it is not about redistributing wealth; it is not about special interests and the status quo. It is about the truth. We are in court because the democratic principles of "one person, one vote" and equal educational opportunity are at the core of what we believe.
Yes, the path we have chosen may be unpopular, but it is the path of justice and fairness. Thomas Jefferson said it best: "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead."