Assembly Member Rodriguez, the author (photo: investined.org)
Each year education advocates head to Albany to fight for our children, this year was no different as thousands arrived on the steps of the Capitol last week clad with signs, flyers, and banners. Yet, among all the differences, all the arguments they bring to the table, one thing is clear – our children need our help.
There are a bounty of choices for parents: public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools; I hear the benefits of each and we feel the successes of their graduates in our community. There are a million reasons to choose one over another, but the choice is limited if they don't receive adequate funding to stay open.
There are 143,000 children, the majority of them children of color from low-income neighborhoods, stuck in failing schools that are crippled by a lack of basic resources, including equitable funding. The $1.8 billion increase in school funding put forth by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, myself, and my colleagues will fill the Gap Elimination Adjustment and start meeting the $4.9 billion Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) commitment we so badly need to keep schools funded.
It's simple to fix this problem by allocating more money in the budget for schools through tax proposals - we already have a school system that has been hurt by property tax caps. However, dedicating a larger portion of the State's bank settlement funds towards CFE will allow us to make the needed improvements to our schools.
As we fight for what we deserve from the CFE settlement, we must also explore education reforms. Funding and improving our schools must not be an either/or conversation; we should willingly implement reasonable changes that provide the best results for our kids.
First, we must ensure adequate funding for quality pre-Kindergarten programs. Pre-K is integral in identifying and helping special needs students early in the educational process. The ability to detect special needs early will allow parents to work with teachers to identify the best course of action to ensure their child gets the help they need and can potentially eliminate their need to be enrolled in special education (SPED) to begin with.
Second, we need to reevaluate our SPED programs. African-American and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be identified by teachers as having serious learning disabilities, and they are 1.5 times more likely to be funneled into SPED services than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.
In New York City, district schools receive an extra $2,309 to $8,609 per SPED student, and often even this is insufficient. Further, If a school graduates a student out of SPED status and provides only supplemental support, the extra school aid drops to just $500, creating a disincentive for schools to graduate students from SPED. While there are schools, both district and charter, which do serve special needs students, and serve them well, many do not. We should increase special education funding for students who can be in mainstream classrooms but need additional services, eliminating the disincentive to move students out of SPED.
Third, we need to explore what accountability looks like through fair and unbiased evaluations. Our teachers can't be portrayed as villains, they are our greatest ally in ensuring our children get the best education.
Last, where teachers and principals have been found to have committed a violent crime, been involved in misconduct involving the sexual abuse of a student, or found incompetent through a pattern of ineffective teaching, a swift suspension or removal process must be implemented to protect our children. Lengthy processes hurt our schools' abilities to educate our children and thus hold our students back.
As we work toward a budget that includes what is owed us from the CFE lawsuit, we must not ignore the areas where we can learn and enhance the opportunities we provide to our children. Our educators and communities, our teachers, our district schools, our charters, and ultimately, our students, have too much on the line to ignore the necessity for bold action, structural improvements, and needed investments to end our state's failing school crisis.
Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez represents East Harlem/El Barrio and the Upper East Side.