2015-02-25 / Features

Assemblymember Nolan Holds Education Meeting

BY THOMAS COGAN

Cathy Nolan, chairwoman of the New York State Assembly’s education committee, called a local district meeting last Tuesday at Sunnyside Community Services, to protest the continuing denial of funding for schools.  Funding was mandated by a series of New York State Court of Appeals decisions, culminating in a 2007 order declaring that billions of dollars must be funded for schools in both New York City and the rest of the state.  At the same time she encouraged some education activists to air their grievances.  One of them was an attorney for the plaintiff in all the trials that grew out of a long-running lawsuit against the state and led to the Court of Appeals order.  Other speakers charged that charter schools are favored over traditional public schools whose class sizes need to be reduced but appear destined to become ever more crowded.  Still others expressed the belief that in one way or another, Governor Andrew Cuomo is a declared enemy of public education.

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), praised Nolan for being the prime figure in state government in the cause of public education, securing desperately needed funds for education when it seems no one else can.  Perhaps Ansari’s chief complaint was against charter schools and the governor who uses them as a weapon.  She said he has called for 259 additional charter schools that he can move to anywhere in the state he believes appropriate.  She said that all of them could be moved into New York City.  When running for office he said he would be “the students’ lobbyist,” but in office his actions reveal to her that “our budget is being held hostage.”  She said she is currently rallying education activists to get on the bus and go to Albany Wednesday, March 11 to join former City Councilman Robert Jackson in a march to the capital and rally there to get the funding that has been mandated but not delivered. 

The protracted lawsuit, Committee for Fiscal Equity Inc. (CFE) v. State of New York, was explained to the meeting by the attorney who spent years on it, Michael A. Rebell, professor of law and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He said it began in 1993 when Robert Jackson, at the time a community school board chairman in Washington Heights (and later a three-term City Councilman), approached him with the idea of suing the state on the grounds that it had perpetually failed to honor Article XI, Section 1, an 1894 entry into the state constitution, which mandates that the legislature provide sufficient funding to provide the state’s public school students with a “sound basic education” that would prepare them to gain lifetime citizenship and the ability to earn income. 

Rebell said he was initially skeptical, believing that the vague language of Article VI, Section 1 would allow the state to parry any demands for specific funding the litigants might have,  He said he gave the case “a 10 percent chance” for success but teamed with Jackson to go ahead with it.  Several years and much time in court followed.  A critical moment came in 2002 when the CFE gained a favorable decision about high school education but an intermediate appeals court rejected it, saying that “sound basic education” referred only to schooling up to the eighth or ninth grade level.  The following year, the case reached the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, which rejected the appellate court’s judgment by a four to one vote and instituted payment schedules to the state’s school districts that the legislature had to work out.  Rebell said that in the course of their work the CFE litigants consulted documents predating Article VI, Section 1 by about a half-century.  They found that early public school advocates, who might have believed that basic education meant only eight or even six years of schooling, nevertheless wrote of “rising generations to come,” implying a gradual improvement would be needed in the basic education standard.  

In 2003, the high school education standard was finally upheld.  By 2007, a formula for compensation had been devised, comprising several billion dollars to be issued to school districts in New York City and the rest of the state over the ensuing four years.  But there was an economic collapse the following year and the compensation plan was deferred.  Years later we see funding proposals by Governor Cuomo that are denounced as shockingly inadequate and have no more reference to the 2007 plan than they have to the Magna Carta.    

Nolan called for comments from the audience.  A Woodside resident, Deborah McAllen, said she has initiated a petition to get a middle school in her district.  She said that when she appealed about it to the Department of Education she was told the student population in that district was not large enough to warrant a middle school.  She believes that to be faulty information and will keep gathering signatures.  Another Woodside mother, Tenille Astor, complained about her second grade child’s situation in overcrowded P.S. 11.  That moved Nolan to describe P.S. 11 as being so crowded its kindergarten kids are being transported by bus to an old school building near Hallet’s Cove, on the East River in Astoria.  Leni Hansen, of the group Class Size Matters, expressed the fear that the time is coming when the only school expansion will be in charter schools.  Nolan praised Hansen for her effort in the campaign against inBloom, the heavily funded national organization that gathered information on students for states and school districts but was ultimately forced out of business in 2014, when, in response to the controversy surrounding it, Albany denied inBloom any further cooperation. Finally, a woman describing herself as a first grade teacher in Manhattan said that Governor Cuomo’s stated wish to “end the public school monopoly” should suffice as fair warning for all about his intentions.

 

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