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Citizens Union



Teaching Our Children Democracy

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(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

People marching in the streets to protest the Trump administration’s policies often chant “This is what democracy looks like!” It’s a good reminder because many Americans have forgotten. Too many of us have taken for granted the rights and freedoms guaranteed us by the United States Constitution. But not anymore. Not when states threaten to arrest people who exercise their right to assemble and a president uses his office to bludgeon people whom he calls “losers.”

The New York Society for Ethical Culture was founded in 1876. Voter turnout that same year in the presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was 81.8 percent nationally. During the 2016 election, the national turnout was 60.2 percent. And this past election, the turnout in New York City was a record low 21.7 percent, a far cry from mayoral elections of decades ago. We can point to many reasons for the dramatic downturn in voter turnout over the past 140 years. But one of the biggest culprits is the lack of civics education in our country.

The purpose of civics is to prepare young Americans to be reflective citizens who value democracy. In that respect, we have failed. It’s clear to see where we went wrong. In the 1980s, policymakers started shifting focus to more “teachable” subjects like math. Some 20 years later, federal funding for social studies was eliminated. The result? A generation in which only one-quarter of U.S. high school students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment. Even more shocking, just two-thirds of students can name all three branches of government.

If there is a silver lining to the results of the 2016 election, it is the dramatic increase in civic engagement. Attendance at Women’s Marches across the country and the world stood in stark contrast to the number of Trump supporters attending his inauguration the day before. Subsequent marches organized by scientists and environmental activists rallied supporters from diverse constituencies for common causes. But a permanent return to civics must start with our youth.

As humanist philosopher John Dewey wrote, “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.” We take that to heart at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Through our Ethics for Children program, we work to empower youth and make them more aware and involved in civic engagement. With a lack of in-depth programs elsewhere, programs like this are a necessary tool for parents to supplement the civics education of their kids.

Civics education should start early in a child’s life so their basic rights as Americans are instilled from an early age. That’s why our program is aimed at children ages 3-12. Each month has a new theme but the overall goal is the same: To teach our children about how democracy works and keep them informed. Our democracy will not survive if future generations are unaware of their rights and responsibilities.

From today’s corrupt political leadership to the rise of bullying on the playground, there is so much about the world that is unethical. How can parents raise ethical, civic-minded children? It starts with how we introduce these ideas. It’s not enough to teach children ethics and civics. They need to experience them. Take your kids to marches and protests, such as the Youth Empowerment march our members joined. Have them attend lectures and events, like the public reading of the Declaration of Independence we hosted with civil rights attorney Norman Siegel. Make sure your kids have great role models. Let them know about kids their own age who are making a difference, like the teenagers suing the Trump administration over its inaction on climate change.

Teachers must once again take seriously their vocation to prepare children to take their places in our democracy, not only to find jobs in our economy. Current affairs can be brought into the classroom to highlight the importance of critical thinking. Student debates encourage teamwork and research, as well as the excitement of intellectual sparring. Field trips to local courthouses and governmental assemblies make democracy come alive.

Ours is a nation deeply divided over core social values. Trump’s presidency is only exacerbating this divide. Truth itself is threatened by a daily barrage of lies and “alternative facts” from the White House. People indulging in what we have come to call “confirmation bias” find information, news outlets, and online memes to fuel their righteous indignation and reject any other opinions. Whatever our differences, we who call the United States our home must find the goodness in one another and work together to call it forth. Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.

Dr. Anne Klaeysen is Leader of New York Society for Ethical Culture. On Twitter @EthicalNYC.

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For Safer City Schools, More Counselors, Fewer Cops

education school visit

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Our city is facing a tough question: how do we make schools safer?

New York City schools are on the precipice of returning to ineffective policies and practices like more policing and metal detectors that have harmed the students who are most in need. The city could and should instead take this opportunity to move further towards school culture and climate priorities that are designed to meet the social, emotional, and mental health needs of young people.

On Tuesday, New York City Council confronted the question of how to create safe schools in a hearing that included testimony from the NYPD, community groups, and, most importantly, young people.

It is young people who hold the answer to the question of how to make schools safer. Young people made clear that punitive and zero tolerance policies are ineffective to address conflict and often harm the students they are intended to support.

Solutions sought by young people address the root causes of conflict and fully recognize young people’s humanity. The Urban Youth Collaborative (whose organizational members include Make the Road New York, Future of Tomorrow, and Sistas and Brothas United) and the Center for Popular Democracy released a policy brief, “Young People’s Vision for Safe, Supportive, and Inclusive Schools,” which recommends dramatically increasing the number of counselors, providing comprehensive mental health supports, and infusing all schools with restorative practices. Absent from this list are metal detectors and police.

Young people’s experiences navigating bullying, conflict, and responses that offer little in the way of resolutions, such as the state-violence perpetrated by arrests, have led them to reimagine school safety by prioritizing what they need most: mental health care; guidance counselors and social workers; and restorative practices. All of their solutions are also backed by research.

Studies show that lower student-to-guidance counselor ratios reduce disciplinary incidents in schools, including ones involving weapons, and students and teachers report feeling safer. There is currently one full-time guidance counselor for every 407 students across the city school system, while the recommended ratio in high-need schools is one for every 100. By contrast, there is currently one NYPD School Safety Division personnel for every 207 students. Our schools will be safer and bullying will be reduced if New York City drastically increases the number of guidance counselors in schools.

Another recommendation from young people is to infuse restorative practices into all high needs schools to prevent conflict. When conflict does occur, restorative practices emphasize a rigorous process of holding each other accountable through communal dialogue. We know these processes work. As just one example, in Denver, within two years of implementing restorative practices in a school, incidents of fighting fell by 80 percent. To reap the benefits of restorative practices, they must be implemented in a robust way – providing funding for restorative justice coordinators and involving students and community in implementation.

Finally, young people want mental health care. New York City must implement a comprehensive mental health service continuum to connect school-based services with community and hospital-based care. In New York City, antiquated and misguided responses to mental health issues continue to utilize the NYPD as first responders to mental health crises in schools and communities. In just one year, the NYPD reported intervening 2,752 times while a child was experiencing a mental health crisis. In one case, a five-year-old black girl was handcuffed during a mental health emergency. Mental health workers need to handle mental health emergencies, and they need the resources to do so. Study after study shows that access to mental health care improves the mental health of young people and reduces disciplinary incidents, including fighting and other interpersonal conflict. Our schools will be safer and bullying will be reduced if New York City provides comprehensive mental health services to schools.

What is not on this list of programs to reduce bullying and make safer schools? Police and metal detectors. Policing in city schools creates extreme racial disparities -- just last week, the NYPD released shocking data illustrating this point.

For example, black girls are 14.4 times more likely to be arrested than their white peers, despite evidence that young people from different races do not misbehave at significantly different rates. Moreover, 97 percent of students middle-school age or younger who were arrested in school were black or Latinx, while they represent just 67 percent of the student population. Proponents of school policing and punitive disciplinary action often cite student safety as their primary justification. Yet there is no substantial evidentiary support for the proposition that police presence in schools create safe learning environments.

To the contrary, several studies show that young people are no safer after years of punitive practices and criminalization. Research shows that policing in schools does not reduce incidents of bullying or fighting. And young people feel significantly less safe. These practices also push young people out of schools entirely. Our schools can and must move away from policies and practices that are ineffective and dehumanize and criminalize young people.

Young people have the answer. We must listen to their calls for support.

Roberto Cabañas is the Urban Youth Collaborative Coordinator. Kate Terenzi is the Center for Popular Democracy’s Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Proskauer Rose LLP.

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Upstate New York is Home to Heavy Voter Turnout, Major State Investment and Minimal Job Growth

Cuomo Buffalo Western New York

photo via The Governor's Office

Responding to criticism that his administration’s efforts to help the economy in upstate New York have been ineffective, Governor Cuomo recently stated at a luncheon in Glens Falls, a small upstate city, “It’s been a bad 50 years.” He added, “You’re not going to turn it around in a couple of years. But have we changed the overall trajectory? Yes.”

A great deal has been written not just about weak economic growth in upstate New York, but also about the lack of accountability and transparency of the state’s economic development agency, Empire State Development. It is essential to examine these concerns in the larger context of the health of upstate and how the region fits into the larger New York economy, the allocation of state government resources, and state politics.

A major political fact about upstate New York stands out in the context of any discussion about its destiny. Upstate New York provides a huge share of the vote in the state’s gubernatorial elections, which occur every four years in the even years not home to presidential elections.

Census 2016 estimates of the population of upstate New York, defined as all the counties north of New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and Rockland, were that the region was about 36% of the state’s total population. But in 2014 upstate New York was home to almost 49% of the gubernatorial vote, when Cuomo won re-election. New York City was home to only 26.5% of the statewide vote, although its share of the state population is 43%. That was equivalent to 1.01 million of the 3.81 million total gubernatorial votes.

These proportions were not just a fluke of one fairly uninteresting election. In 2010, when Andrew Cuomo was first elected governor, the upstate vote was 46.5% of 4.6 million votes on the governor line, while New York City was 29%. In 2006, when Eliot Spitzer easily won the governorship, upstate was 48% of the vote, while New York City was 28% of the 4.4 million votes. The city did do better in last year’s presidential election: in 2016, 2.7 million votes were recorded in New York City of the 7.7 million votes statewide, or 35%.

Upstate New York’s share of the vote in gubernatorial elections -- nearly half -- means that the area is politically important to whomever the governor might be and explains the focus on attempts to meet the needs of the people who live there. This, in combination with other factors, can help explain Governor Cuomo’s intense focus on Buffalo and other upstate areas, and the many economic development programs the state has launched to reinvigorate the upstate economy.

Downstate residents -- especially people from New York City -- ought to take upstate’s staggering disproportion of the vote as a wake-up call on the issue of how voter turnout may impact the allocation of resources. Not for the purpose of taking resources away from an area with a stagnant economy, but to make sure there are rational, articulated reasons and shared goals as to why state policies put resources in one place or another.

Let’s look at job growth over the past six years, measured as annual average employment in 2010 versus the annual average in 2016, and how upstate New York compared to the rest of New York and the nation.

Upstate New York gained 132,000 private sector jobs, growth of 5.8%, but lost 37,000 government jobs, making total job growth a meager 95,000 jobs, a gain of 3.3% from 2010 to 2016. Total state employment grew 851,000 jobs, with private sector growth of 916,000 jobs.

New York City gained 610,000 jobs overall, with 616,000 private sector jobs. The city gained 72% of the total number of jobs across the state. The city had a gain of 16% of jobs there compared to 2010, and a strong 19% in private sector job growth from 2010 to 2016.

Long Island and the northern suburbs (Orange, Rockland, Westchester is the metro area unit) gained over 7% in total jobs compared to 2010, and over 10% growth in the private sector.

New York State as a whole grew 10%, with 13% in the private sector, very similar to the national growth rates, which were 10.7% total growth and private sector growth about 13%. The figures, all 2016 compared to 2010, certainly show that upstate New York was growing far more slowly than the rest of New York and the nation as the United States emerged from the Great Recession that hit in 2008-2009.

Upstate New York has nearly 7 million people, meaning it has a larger population than at least 33 states, and has 3 million jobs. It is a substantial economic region itself, and, like many parts of the United States, its job base has been battered by recessions and loss of manufacturing jobs.

Upstate New York has 12 metropolitan areas, and its three largest fared better than a number of the metro areas with smaller core cities. The Buffalo-Niagara region and the Rochester metro region both gained about 30,000 private sector jobs, almost 7% growth from 2010 to 2016. The Albany area gained 34,000 private sector jobs, about 9%. The Syracuse area, upstate’s fourth largest metro area, grew more slowly, gaining only 3% in private jobs.

The Binghamton and Elmira areas, in the Southern Tier, and the Utica-Rome area in central New York, lost 10,000 jobs between 2010 and 2016, although 7,000 of the jobs were in government. Utica-Rome did not lose private sector jobs but had almost no growth in them either. The remaining regions varied in their growth patterns but in general had slow growth. Loss of government jobs in upstate New York stabilized by 2013 after several years of cutbacks as the economy and the state budget improved.

Job growth overall in New York has continued in 2017, but a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York stated that growth in the upstate New York economy has slowed in 2016 and 2017.

Governor Cuomo said that upstate New York has had a bad 50 years but the state had changed the trajectory. It is important to acknowledge the economic damage that occurred in upstate New York before Cuomo was elected in 2010 as one looks at economic development efforts his administration has undertaken to change the trajectory.

New York’s efforts include not just the activities of Empire State Development, but substantial budget allocations and other development tools. Given the range of initiatives, from the Buffalo Billion to Start-Up New York, new casinos, the nano-technology centers, the Regional Economic Development Councils, and other efforts, it would be unfair to say the New York State government is not trying to help upstate New York. It is trying.

The next columns in this series on the state’s economy and economic development efforts will look at these concerns together: the severity of upstate New York’s manufacturing and other job losses; the extent of the effort by the state government to put resources into upstate; whether resources are being used effectively or being squandered; and to what extent the outcomes of these initiatives are transparent and being reported in meaningful ways.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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