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Andrew Pallotta: Education - An Avenue To Equality

Our hearts were broken this spring by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, racial and economic inequalities within our nation were already laid bare. And with his death, the need for change took on new urgency. We at NYSUT were heartened that New York State lawmakers responded quickly to widespread calls for change by instituting criminal justice reforms in June.

But when it comes to addressing these issues, let’s not fool ourselves — the work isn’t done.  Racism and economic inequality remain pervasive; and everyone has a responsibility to speak up.

That’s why, as educators, we continue to speak up about the need to fully fund our public schools and colleges. All students deserve great public schools, not just some. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in our state. Students living in wealthy communities attend well-funded, academically enriching schools, where opportunities for future success abound.

But for children who attend struggling, underfunded New York State schools, things are different. They learn from outdated textbooks and squeeze into dilapidated, overcrowded classrooms. And too often, they’re students of color. For them, opportunities like advanced classes and enrichment courses like music and art, are few. And pathways to future opportunity and success are narrowed.

And studies show that an unfair start — that opportunity denied — can follow students for the rest of their lives. Sometimes funneling them into the criminal justice system.

Opportunity denied extends into higher education. Take community colleges, for instance. They rely on state funding to offer programs and services that both educate students where they live and work, and significantly advance their social mobility. But without predictable funding streams, campuses are forced to raise tuition and to limit courses and programs, which narrows opportunity for those most in need.

This kind of unfairness is why we’re calling for additional federal funding and a tax on the ultra-wealthy — it could raise more than $9 billion in new state revenues for public education in New York State.

Just imagine what we could do to create a fairer education system if those who can afford to give more, are finally asked to give more.

Picture smaller class sizes … more school counselors, school psychologists, social workers and educators … a school nurse in every building … and enriching arts and advanced courses. Opportunity … for students unfairly denied opportunity through no fault of their own.

New York has the worst economic inequality of any state in the nation. Consider this — the top one percent of New York State’s wealth holders have nearly 45 times more than the bottom 99 percent of wage earners.

The tax gap between the haves and the have nots wasn’t always so wide. Between 1969 and 1976 New York had a top tax rate of 15 percent. This paid for great public schools, free tuition at SUNY and CUNY and other vital public services across the state, such as housing. 

As we watch historic change sweep across our nation … as we see citizens rally for real solutions to the deep-seated racial issues in our society … let’s not overlook the very real need for funding fairness in public education.

Public education shouldn’t be a system of haves and have nots. Where a student lives, or how much money their family makes, shouldn’t determine the quality of the schooling they receive. All students deserve a quality public education, not just some. And that can only be done by fully funding our public schools and colleges.

Andy Pallotta, a former elementary teacher, is president of the more than 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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