March Issue
March 09, 2015

Public education — the social justice issue of our time

Author: NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale
Source: NYSUT United

Anyone reading this knows that public education is under attack. We realize certain issues demand that we act aggressively and immediately to fight for equitable school funding, protection of tenure, and the demand for fair and appropriate evaluations.

However, there is a larger, more pervasive fight: the preservation of public education as we know and understand it to be — a basic civil right of all Americans. This is a fight like we've never seen before. Republicans are waging the war on public education, and Democrats have joined them.

Why? Follow the money. It is abundantly evident that corporations and hedge fund mangers have a huge, selfish interest in public education. They are not interested in that third-grade student or that second-year college student in your classroom.

Their interest lies solely on the fact that they want their fingers in the pool of money that goes into a public school system. They only see the profit to be made from privatizing schools and creating tests and curriculum that are flawed, yet very lucrative. It is another attack on the middle and working class people.

Public education is the promise to future generations that hard work and learning can change circumstances. Public education is the great equalizer.

Why does this sound familiar? Our governor said it seven years ago in a forum at the Long Island Federation of Labor. Guess he forgot the public part in his State of the State address.

Our schools are dealing with such institutional inequalities that it is impossible for us to overcome them alone in our classrooms.

How can we expect a school district that spends $8,600 less per student than its wealthier neighbor to somehow have the same academic results — which are, of course, based on meaningless, arbitrary standardized tests?

A recent study, "Confronting the Opportunity Gap," revealed the spending gaps among the top 100 wealthiest districts. It also reported 92 percent graduation rates in wealthy school districts vs. 65 percent in low-wealth districts. No surprise: Students in those underfunded schools are underperforming on the flawed Common Core tests compared to students in well-funded districts.

Under our current governor, public education is failing to be the great equalizer. He has proposed to take more money away from public schools (beyond the Gap Elimination Adjustment and tax cap penalties), shift more funding from districts to go directly to charter schools, and allow wealthy people to write off their private school donations — at a cost of $300 million to public schools. The wealthy profit even more while the poor continue to pay the consequences.

It is truly a social justice issue. We can't sit by and let the great divide happen while those in power attempt to shove the blame on us for the demise of public education.

Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president, stated recently in testimony at the Capitol:

"Public schools are not a monopoly to be broken. Rather ... the centerpiece of our democracy and a ladder to opportunity and success for all New Yorkers. Our public schools are transparent, accountable and democratically governed by locally elected school boards directly accountable to voters.

"We must knock on every door of our legislators, engage our communities, and defend what we do in our classrooms at a fierce level of passion because if we don't, the billionaire corporations will laugh all the way to the bank while the promise to future generations of equality and opportunity will ring hollow."

A civil right means all students have the same opportunities regardless where they come from. Public school education is one of our most critical civil rights. It is worth defending.

NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale oversees social justice initiatives for the union.