Andrew Pallotta: A Worthy Investment | WAMC

Andrew Pallotta: A Worthy Investment

Mar 5, 2020

We’ve seen the numbers, and numbers don’t lie. By a mind boggling 92 percent, New York State voters favor raising taxes on ultra-millionaires and billionaires to boost state coffers. The change could raise more than $12 billion in revenue as the state grapples with a $6.1 billion dollar budget deficit.

You know what voters aren’t in favor of? Reducing funding for public colleges, universities and K-12 public schools.

Back in January, we commissioned a survey to find out if New York State voters felt the same way we did. We asked them if they thought ultra-millionaires and billionaires should pay a bit more so that New York State’s public schools, colleges and universities could offer an affordable, quality, public education.  The results weren’t surprising.

Out of 1,000 registered New York State voters they surveyed, over 90 percent favored increasing taxes on those who make more money than average New Yorkers like you and I could ever imagine. The findings cut across party lines and geographical boundaries. From Buffalo, to Plattsburgh, to Albany, to Long Island and New York City, nearly everyone agreed. Those who can afford to contribute more should contribute more.

It’s only fair.

We shared these findings in a press conference earlier this month. Since the event took place downtown, right near the offices of the elected officials who have the power to make this happen, I hope they were listening.

Because our public schools, colleges and universities could really use the full funding levels they were promised by state leaders. New York State owes some 400 school districts $3.4 billion in education funding. And, in the absence of meaningful state investment in higher education, academic programs and student supports have suffered.

Since the start of the New Year, my fellow officers and I have traveled around the state for a first-hand look at the impact underfunding has had on our public schools.

And let me tell you — it’s unbelievable.

At Schenevus Elementary School near Elmira, one classroom had part of a wall covered in water damage. You could smell the dampness from the hallway. But because district officials don’t have the money for repairs, and overcrowding is an issue, there it sits.

Schenevus is owed more than $700,000 in state aid.

At Pulaski Street Elementary in the Riverhead School District on Long Island, space is so tight that 420 kids struggle to eat lunch in the cafeteria. Crammed in like sardines, they have to eat in shifts because they can’t all fit in there at once. They’ve also got to eat fast because each “shift” only lasts about 11 minutes.

Riverhead is owed $31.1 million.

In the Niagara Falls City School District, there’s a ratio of one social worker for every 2,000 students, no elementary school librarians and only eight guidance counselors district wide.

Niagara Falls is owed $13.7 million.

And things aren’t any better in higher ed.

Despite what many think, the state’s Excelsior tuition program is not a free education. My union colleague Roberta Elins, who heads our local at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC, said it best, “There’s a fee for everything. They charge these students to breathe.” As a result, our higher ed students are struggling.

Onondaga Community College has been forced to eliminate all funding for basic supplies for art and design students. One dedicated professor buys materials for students out of her own pocket because she knows they can’t succeed without it.

But the current executive budget proposal — it includes basically the same funding as last year. Worst of all, it does nothing to bridge the TAP gap … that means that campuses must absorb the difference between what the Tuition Assistance Program covers, and students’ actual tuition costs. We expect the TAP gap to grow to at least $170 million over the coming year.

It’s time to make public education a priority in our state.

For most New Yorkers, our tax proposal wouldn’t impact them at all. And for the state’s 112 billionaires, and tens of thousands more ultra-millionaires — well, it wouldn’t make much of a different for them either. They would still be able to afford their yachts.

But do you know where it would make a difference — in the lives of our state’s public school students. Aren’t they worth the investment?

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.