Public education at stake in New York state: Politics for the Upstate Student

Posted by Julia Grigel

2011 has been a grim year for public education. State officials and school administrators nationwide have been calling for massive teacher layoffs in the coming year in an effort to "tighten the belt". The recently amplified assault on deficit spending has served as justification for extensive public sector budget cuts. The cause of these cuts is purely economic—but they have effectively impaired government's ability to fulfill its ends.

In New York State, thousands of teachers have been handed pink slips, effective in June. Why?—because Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing a tax cap that would limit annual property tax increases by 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Cuomo has been pushing for a tax cap since his gubernatorial campaign last year, emphasizing the need to reduce the state's growing deficit and to reduce unemployment.

If that last sentence didn't make sense, it's because Cuomo's logic is just wrong—reducing taxes won't magically reduce the deficit and create jobs. A tax cap simply means a reduced state income, and a state that is less able to provide funds for education. The problem with this economic ideology—that less state spending creates more individual incentive to invest—is (in addition to the fact that it's a myth) that it puts at risk vital social programs like health care and education.

Despite the acrid odor of supply-side economics applied to the social sphere, Cuomo raises one important point: efficiency. The Governor has recently emphasized schools' misuse of state funds, urging them to "reduce the waste, reduce the fraud, reduce the abuse." Schools could certainly reorganize their funds and reduce waste by cutting extracurricular programs and lowering administrative salaries.

But a recommendation from the Governor is certainly not enough to tempt administrators, who are often solely responsible for determining how budget cuts will be executed in their districts, to heroically lower their own salaries. If Cuomo is serious he should be much firmer, issuing public statements urging schools to cut administrators' salaries. With unyielding guidance from Albany, administrators would be forced to hang their heads, admit the injustice of their proposed cuts, and reduce their own salaries.

The lack of direction from Albany on the question of how exactly to make the necessary cuts has had a destructive effect on the morale of teachers, especially young teachers who are typically first on the cutting block. Recent discussion of basing layoffs on merit rather than seniority has given some hope to the younger generation of teachers. But still, the very concept of cutting directly into the state's public education force is a frightening one.

To invest in New York State means to invest in the future viability of its workforce—and that necessarily means providing sound education to all students. Not only is it detrimental to the workforce of current teachers, a large chunk of which might find itself jobless next year, but it is hugely detrimental to the young people who might find themselves cramped in an overcrowded classroom with an over-stretched teacher next year.

Especially in economic times like these, it is more important than ever to provide students with access to sound education—because without good learning, the ability of the state and its residents to sustain themselves is economically debilitated. In the State of the State Address back in January of this year, Governor Cuomo claimed he wanted to restore to New York its role as "the progressive capitol of our nation." Something is frighteningly wrong if being progressive means lowering taxes at the undeniable expense of institutions that are vital to citizens' well-being. Passing a budget that will result in large numbers of teacher layoffs would degrade the quality of our education system and would have injurious results on students' development of their natural abilities, thus causing economic problems for decades to come.

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