November 2011 Issue
October 24, 2011

Budget cuts widen gap between haves, have-nots

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Pat Puleo, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, speaks to reporters about how students in Yonkers schools are losing out because of the lack of adequate funding for basic educational programs. Photo by Carl Korn. MORE PHOTOS

In Central Islip, parents of second- graders expressed concern that their children are struggling with their lessons because class sizes have risen as high as 34. Elsewhere on Long Island, Elwood and Huntington reduced full-day kindergarten and Wyandanch lost all of its high school art courses. William Floyd teacher Lisa Hane's kindergarten class is 28, up from 21, including a dozen 4-year-olds.

AFT President Randi Weingarten drew attention to the physical condition of Yonkers public schools during an October visit. Yet another round of budget cuts in the districts means schools have one psychologist per 2,600 students and one guidance counselor for 900 students. Elementary schools no longer have librarians and pre-kindergarten has been reduced to half time - with hundreds of students on a waiting list.

"We are in crisis," said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo. "Education is a civil right, but the children of Yonkers don't have full-time librarians, guidance counselors, reading teachers or the classes they need. They are losing out on a guarantee made to children all over New York - the right to a great education."

No question, as the reality of $1.3 billion in state aid cuts hit home, schools opened this fall with thousands of layoffs, significant program cuts and considerably larger class sizes. Numerous districts say it will be difficult to meet state requirements for everything from physical education to art to special education.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said schools simply can't hide the pain caused by cutting an estimated 7,000 educators and leaving another 4,000 positions unfilled. In the past three years, Iannuzzi said, districts were forced to eliminate tens of thousands of positions.

In a series of "School Cuts Hurt" events from Buffalo to Albany and Massena to Long Island, students, parents, teachers and community members gathered to share how state cuts have taken their toll.

Perhaps worst of all, education advocates explained, budget cuts have disproportionately hit the neediest schools the hardest, further widening the funding gap between low-wealth and high-wealth districts.

In an eye-opening survey highlighting the disparity in school funding, the Long Island Education Coalition, a regional umbrella group that includes superintendents, teachers unions and other groups, divided districts into three groups: those below the state average in taxable wealth, those in the middle, and those well above the state average. The results were startling.

For example, almost 40 percent of low-wealth districts planned reductions in numbers of students sent to occupational training centers operated by regional BOCES. Only 7 percent of districts of middle wealth, and none of higher wealth, were forced to make such reductions.

The same survey showed about 19 percent of low-wealth districts planned significant cuts in high school athletics, while only 3 percent of districts with medium wealth and none of the higher-wealth districts did the same.

Similarly, about 17 percent of low-wealth districts planned reductions in college-level Advanced Placement courses, while other districts had no intention of doing that. Class sizes in low-wealth districts were substantially higher.

"With these kind of state aid cuts, the disparity between the haves and have-nots will only continue to grow," Iannuzzi said. "The neediest districts simply don't have the resources to make up for the loss of state aid. And that, in turn, means the student achievement gap will grow ever wider."

Numerous other studies have documented New York's disproportionate funding gap. The New York State Council of School Superintendents (NYSCOSS) released a survey called "At the Edge," which found poor districts appear to be struggling the most: This school year, the poorest 20 percent of districts increased spending by only 0.1 percent, while the statewide average was 3.4 percent. School districts reported reducing the total workforce by an average of nearly 5 percent, with job reductions especially severe in rural and urban schools.

Contrary to what the governor's office claims, NYSCOSS noted these job cuts were a last resort after the majority of districts dipped into reserve funds and many unions sacrificed pay increases and agreed to pay more for health benefits.

A Rutgers University study in 2009 found New York in the bottom five states when it comes to how fairly it funds its schools. Only four states had a bigger gap between how much money they send to their poorest schools compared with their wealthiest ones.

In 2007, Albany temporarily bumped up funding to poor districts after the Court of Appeals found the state was underfunding high-needs schools. However, after the economy crashed in 2008, that funding flatlined and was eventually cut.

"We need to get our priorities in order," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta at the Yonkers event. "These cuts hurt kids."

Pallotta noted the education cuts come as state leaders are letting legislation expire that, in effect, will give $5 billion in tax breaks to the richest 1 percent of New Yorkers.

"That's another story about the haves and the have-nots," Pallotta said. "We've got to convince our lawmakers to do the right thing."