Wednesday, June 17, 2015

When Private Interests Take Over Public Schools

The fight against privatization of public schools is thought to be one against moneyed, hedgefund charter investors who want to make a profit off of our children.  There is another kind of fight against private interest takeover that has been going on in East Ramapo, NY for years, and it is time that it got more of our attention.

About five years ago, the population of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in East Ramapo used bloc voting to take all of the seats on the public school board of education.  They have continually defunded public schools in favor of the private yeshivas their children attend. They conduct closed-door board meetings and do not respond to public outcry. They are depriving the mostly ethnic and impoverished public school students of their constitutional right for a quality education. Over 100 teachers have been cut from public schools, along with other staff that includes administrators, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, and social workers. There are no longer advanced courses in East Ramapo public schools, though there are plenty of opportunities in the yeshivas.  Music, art, sports, extracurricular activities, high school electives, full-day kindergarten have all been either cut back or eliminated. Jewish as well as other religious clergy, civil rights groups, the New York City Bar Association, and others have asked the state legislature to take action.  The Assembly passed a bill calling for state oversight of this abominable and shameful self-interest, but the Senate is sitting on it and has taken no action. I just called Amedore and was assured he will get the message today before the session ends. I made a case that this is segregation at its worst, and why is the state advocating for receivership and state takeover of "failing" schools and giving this district a pass? PLEASE CALL YOUR SENATOR TODAY. This is a civil rights issue and a moral issue.  If action is not taken today we must continue advocating for these students.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

About Those Tax Credit Mailers And Robocalls

If you live in New York, you have surely been inundated with numerous robocall messages, glossy mailers, and tv commercials that plead for us to "stand up for our schools" by passing the Education Tax Credit.  I have been both frustrated and angry that this huge lobbying effort (in one day I can get up to three mailers and a robocall) shamelessly uses distorted facts and misrepresentations to achieve their end goal.  The deep pockets behind this campaign wants legislators to pass a backdoor voucher scheme that will reward the 1% while removing needed money from the tax stream.  Cuomo does not seem to mind that this expense would come at a time when most NY schools are still being squeezed between a rigid tax cap and underfunding from the state.

The New York Times recently "outed" those behind the Coalition for Opportunity in Education.  Hedgefund billionaires Bruce Kovner, Ira Rennert, Julian H. Robertson Jr., and Paul E. Snyder have donated to the group, with their stated aim being "school choice" and the privatization of our public schools.  COE has been one of the top ten lobbying spenders for the past two years, with their campaigns costing upwards of a million dollars. Eva Moskowitz and her StudentsFirstNY and Families for Excellent Schools PACs have also chimed in with television commercials.  One can almost see the salivation of investors like these as they think about the "opportunity" for investment that will occur, once they get those pesky public schools out of the way and take them over with for-profit charters.  Their first step towards that goal would be to open the "back" door for vouchers in New York State.  Once the door is open a bit, it would be much easier to march on through with full voucher plans like the one recently adopted by Nevada, where they will now give each child a voucher for $10,000+ to pick the school of their choice.  No matter what happens to the public schools that are not first on the wish-list of students, it will be survival of the fittest. We are supposed to believe that these hedgefund capitalist "reformers" are spending so much of their money on lobbying because they have the "altruistic" belief that market competition will "save our students."  Because, after all, market competition has done so well in other public service areas - like health care, cable television and internet, etc.  We just aren't supposed to notice the high costs and minimal service that creeps in once a profit margin is established.

This ALEC-inspired scheme will create a deficit of up to $150 million from the tax stream in the first year, with at least $70 million reserved for the rich who will receive a 75% tax credit for their up-to-a-million-dollar donation to the swanky private schools of their choice. Compare that to the current maximum state deduction of $22,000, and you can see that Elizabeth Lyman, a financial expert for the New York Citizens' Budget Commission, was right when she stated in a New York Times article  that the bill is "an extremely lucrative benefit likely to serve the state's wealthiest taxpayers."  Indeed, some have stated that only those with an "accountant on speed-dial" would be able to take advantage of the tax break. Cuomo's allegiance to his hedgefund donors is firmly established, as it appears he will pull out all stops to get them what they want, even pushing for a linkage between the Assembly's preferred rent control measures and the backdoor voucher, which is popular in the Senate.  

Cardinal Dolan and other religious leaders have praised the bill, hoping that through the $500 "scholarship" that is included, parochial schools will be saved from the exodus of students that has been growing every year over the last decade.  What they do not understand, is that their loss of students is primarily caused by the existence of tuition-free charter schools, and a small scholarship is not going to solve that problem.  The $500 scholarship is also not going to give students who would not already be attending a private school, the ability to do so.  Actually, though this year's voucher scheme does not include charter schools, the fact that Moskowitz et al is involved in the lobbying clearly reveals their hope that the backdoor will soon be opened for their charters and lead to the expanded market they so desire. Vouchers could just be the last nail in the coffin for both parochial and public schools.

Cuomo gave a snarky comment to the NY Times that "the predictable sort of Manhattan liberals" were concerned about the possibly unconstitutional blending of church and state that will occur with the tax credit. The fact of the matter is that this proposal violates one of the principles our country was founded on, and every citizen should be concerned about that.  In states like Georgia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Florida when backdoor voucher measures have been legislated, taxpayer funds went to schools that taught  creationism, racist intolerance, homophobia, and/or science denial curriculum.  Because the funding comes via a "donation" and not directly from the state, the state has no say in curriculum that is taught, and there is no financial oversight allowed.  

Those mailers that go out warn us that if we do not pass the ETC "there will be less funding for pre-K and afterschool programs, like art and music classes."  The exact opposite is true. The chances of donors coming forward with a gift to public schools is remote, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of current donors give to private, not public, schools.  In fact, the negative effect the credit will have on the tax stream will most certainly lead to less funding for public schools, not more.  And as for that "reimbursement" to "hard-working teachers" for out-of-pocket expenses, there is already a $250 federal tax deduction that teachers receive.  The public school teachers that I know would not want to take a tax credit that would impact the funding of their schools.

A recent Q-poll stated that 66% of New Yorkers were in favor of the tax credit, probably due to the heavy media campaign of the hedgefund coalition.  With the Assembly ending its session on June 17, it is CRUCIAL that we get the correct information out to the public - by sharing the truth with as many people as we can reach.  It is also crucial that we support those Assembly members who are standing strong against this proposal in spite of the printed slurs and robocalls against them.  We are up against big money, so it is more important than ever that our voices be heard.  Pick up your phone, fire up your email, and tell your legislators that you expect them to support public schools and vote no on the Parental Choice in Education Act.