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Opinion

New York's Signature College Aid Program Turns 40, But Falls Short of Meeting Needs


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Gov. Cuomo making a SUNY-related announcement (photo: @NYGovCuomo)


The Tuition Assistance Program can't keep up with soaring tuition costs without comprehensive reform.

Total student loan debt in the U.S. is currently more than $1 trillion, surpassing credit card and auto-loan debt. This debt is not only threatening young graduates' ability to fully participate in the economy, but also suffocating too many families and middle-aged adults. According to the New York Federal Reserve, 30-year-old student debt holders are less likely to own a home and more likely to delay their own retirement.

Sixty percent of New York college graduates – nearly 3 million residents – incur debt, with a total of $73 million and an average amount of more than $25,000. To make matters worse, median wages for people between the ages of 25 and 34 have fallen in every major industry except healthcare.

Unfortunately, New York State has responded by cutting funding and increasing tuition. In fact, over the last two decades, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges in New York have risen 127 percent while students continue to foot the bill. Since 2008, New York State cut nearly $2 billion to higher education. Tuition at the State University of New York (SUNY) has increased by $1,550 and at the City University of New York (CUNY) by $1,700. Those costs will continue to grow as a result of the NY SUNY 2020 "Rational Tuition Bill," which is scheduled to raise tuition at public colleges by $300 annually for five consecutive years.

Meanwhile, New York State's signature college aid program – the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which turned 40 this year – has remained grossly inadequate, leaving too many New Yorkers behind.

After years of cuts to this $1 billion program that helps over 300,000 students annually, there are a number of important policy reforms that the state needs to consider. Fortunately, New York State Assembly Higher Education Chairwoman Deborah Glick is holding a public hearing in Albany on Wednesday, December 10 to review TAP.

While tuition continues to surpass the maximum TAP award of $5,165, universities are left to fill the gap for the most at-need students. This costs the universities tens of millions of dollars every year, which takes away from other vital needs. It's time for the State to increase the maximum TAP award to at least $6,500 to match public tuition and to take some of the debt burden off of New York families.

In addition, the fight over the NY DREAM Act has gone on long enough. It's time to allow all young people – including our undocumented youth – the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Governor Cuomo must include funding for undocumented youth to access state financial aid – including TAP – in this year's budget. The cost would be less than 2 percent of the total TAP budget and would not take away from other students who currently receive the award or will do so in the future. The Office of the New York State Comptroller estimates that extending aid to the state's 8,000 undocumented youth would enhance the earnings of individuals and grow the state's tax revenue.

The State needs to make it easier for part-time students to access aid and pursue a degree by eliminating the requirement that students attend college full-time for a year before becoming eligible for Part-Time TAP. From 1980 to 2012, the number of part-time community college students in New York increased by 193 percent, yet the State has been non-responsive to their growing need. What's more, even students who are eligible for Part-Time TAP can only receive six semesters of aid, which contributes to the college completion challenge.

This isn't just a problem for younger New Yorkers: TAP has historically left out lower-income working adults and must open access for all, regardless of age. Its current award schedule is based on the first year a student received an award, meaning that if a student first enrolled in a college in 1998 and received the maximum TAP award ($4,125 at the time), and that same student re-enrolled today, he or she would still only be eligible for the 1998 award level, notwithstanding subsequent increases to tuition or TAP.

Despite the many reforms needed to bring the program into the 21st century, the State did make two improvements to the program last year. For the first time in 14 years, it finally increased the award, adding $165. In addition, the final budget included a no-brainer reform to make orphans and wards of the State eligible for the $5,165 maximum award available to "dependent" students instead of the $3,025 maximum award available to "independent" students.

The state budget must reflect the values of New York residents. As Governor Cuomo begins to prepare his Executive Budget for next year, we must continue to remind him that high and preventable student loan debt caused by high tuition and inadequate state aid are not New York values.

***
Kevin Stump is Leadership Director for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network and former chair of the Coalition to Reform TAP

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email executive editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dear Educators: Please scrap your lesson plans


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Protesters on Wednesday evening in New York (photo: William Alatriste)


Good morning. I'm incredibly appreciative that school is in session today in New York City and that you're there to care for our children. I thank you for the leadership you show and the responsibility you embrace every day. I wish I was going to be leading a classroom today, but I'm not, I left teaching a couple of years ago. So yes, I'm a quitter and you should take the thoughts I offer with whatever skepticism you deem appropriate.

Now I run this news publication. I try to educate the public about New York politics and government; and I continue to closely follow and care deeply about what happens in our schools.

I'm writing to ask that you scrap your lesson plans for the day - and probably tomorrow too.

I know the panic that this notion can instill, bumping anything a day or two often means making even more difficult an already insurmountable task of trying to fit everything in before the end of the marking period. I've been there. But, this is really important.

Today is a day for social studies in virtually every classroom in every school in this city. It's a day to study our society. It's time for current events.

Whether or not you spent some of Wednesday afternoon or evening following the decision of a Staten Island grand jury and its aftermath; and whatever you think about that decision and what has been said and done since; it's incredibly important that we make sure students know what is going on and provide them with space to process. It's important for us adults too, of course. I hope you agree.

I understand what I'm getting at here - bumping whatever you have planned for today (and maybe tomorrow) and talking with students about controversial political things that center around race and crime and protest - might be making you pretty uncomfortable. As it would. And you may have already rolled your eyes at me, which I completely understand. But, bear with me, please.

If you (or your students) haven't been following the circumstances around the July 17 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and the case of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who the grand jury decided not to indict relative to Garner's death, (or even if you have), here is a timeline of key developments courtesy of The New York Times.

Because it never makes sense to ask a teacher for a last-minute change in plans as dozens of students head for your door without offering support, there are a few other resources linked below, including video of Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Barack Obama commenting in response to the grand jury's decision and a few articles and opinion pieces.

Yes, I'm asking that you talk with your students about what is happening in New York City (and elsewhere). About race and policing and protest and justice. You don't have to have all the answers, or even most of them. You don't have to give your opinions, or even have them. You don't have to tolerate racism or hate in your classroom. But, man oh man do we have some very 'teachable moments' here. Moments for students to ask questions, talk about personal experiences, share what they might have seen or heard last night as New Yorkers marched all over Manhattan in protest.

We shouldn't pass this moment up - we should talk about these things - even in biology or algebra.

As Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote in a memo to Department of Education staff on Wednesday morning that you may or may not have seen: "As adults, we know that there are many positive ways to respond to complex situations that result in greater insight and understanding; current events can be a great learning experience for the entire school community."

Clearly doing even a little bit of what I'm suggesting could be very tenuous, even dangerous, in many classrooms, I'm not naive. Obviously you know your students and class dynamics better than anyone else and will use your discretion. But, perhaps there's space for at least some discussion around what almost all students are surely at least somewhat aware of.

Maybe it's just the basics of the Garner incident and Pantaleo case, what happened last night, and where things stand: with federal and internal NYPD investigations underway and several more chapters likely to come in this tragic saga.

Maybe it's a discussion of whether protesters should be allowed to block traffic or of what students think police officers' biggest challenges are in doing their jobs. Maybe it's just journaling and conversation in pairs or small groups about something relevant.

You probably don't need me to tell you any of this, and forgive me if you're annoyed - I know that often the last thing teachers want to hear is other people telling them what to do in their classrooms. I'm simply hopeful that New York City classrooms will be the best places for learning that they can be, today and every day.

Thank you.

***
A brief sample of resources (note: much of the above and below is maturity and age-dependent):

The New York Times
De Blasio Reacts as Mayor and a Father (includes video of the mayor's remarks)

The New York Times
Officer Told Grand Jury He Meant No Harm to Eric Garner

4+ mins of President Obama discussing the issues at play in response to the Staten Island ruling Wednesday afternoon (YouTube via The White House)

Capital New York
Justice department to investigate Garner's death

Newsday
Arrests on Brooklyn Bridge as Protesters Fan Out Across City

DNAinfo
83 People Arrested as Thousands Protest Eric Garner Decision

Newspaper Editorial Boards:
The New York Times
A Search for Justice in the Eric Garner Case

The New York Daily News
The Eric Garner 'chokehold' grand jury decision has the earmarks of a gross miscarriage of justice

The New York Post
No indictment

New York Newsday
Eric Garner Case Decision Defies Belief

Something different, but very relevant (probably only appropriate for high school and beyond):
NPR
#CrimingWhileWhite Opens A Prism On Police And Race

***
by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax
email me: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Jobs Task Force Report Shows Progress, But Much More Must Be Done For Young Adults


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Small Busniess Services Commissioner Torres-Springer (photo: @SBSNeighborhoods)


Although New York City's unemployment rate has plummeted in recent months, economic recovery remains little more than a rumor for the more than 300,000 New Yorkers between 18 and 24 years old who are not in school and out of work or stuck in low wage jobs—a number comprising 35 percent of all New Yorkers in that age range. For this group, the shortcomings of New York City's workforce system bear depressing similarity to the drawbacks that marred their experiences in public education. Both offer too little relevance to their current challenges and long-term needs.

The workforce system's disconnection from economic development investments and priorities, and the failure of many related programs to deliver market-relevant education and training, do not serve young adults who need to build skills and gain experience.

This past spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio convened the Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force, a 30-member committee of noted corporate executives (including JobsFirstNYC board member Greg Hambric of Modell's Sporting Goods), educators, philanthropists, union leaders, city officials and nonprofit service providers, to develop strategies to strengthen the city's workforce system and help workers to secure well-paying jobs in high demand careers. The Task Force was assigned to make recommendations to spend the City's nearly $500 million workforce development budget more effectively. The recently released Career Pathways: One City Working Together, fulfills this charge.

A bid to shift the system's focus from quick placement into low wage jobs to emphasis on careers, the scope of Career Pathways is unprecedented. The recommendations would shift how the City spends more than $150 million annually and impact operations within no less than eight city agencies, including the Department of Education and the City University of New York, as well as hundreds of business owners and nonprofit organizations. The task force identified two major organizing principles to enable this change: Industry Partnerships and Career Pathways. While both strategies offer promise, the report leaves many crucial questions unanswered.

Industry Partnerships would serve as intermediaries between employers and service providers. But the report does not address the structures or authority of these partnerships, nor does it identify what role nonprofits will play within this structure. Career Pathways align and coordinate education and training programs toward career progression. Exactly how the City will manage this complex transition from rapid attachment to career development is not discussed in the report.

Also unclear is how the plan would change the career trajectory of those young adult New Yorkers who lack the skills to compete for jobs that pay living wage or stuck in low-wage jobs.

One option for the City to consider is work being done by organizations like JobsFirstNYC to develop sector-based partnerships that may also be well-positioned to support certain constituents like young adults. The Young Adult Sectoral Employment Project, created by JobsFirstNYC and supported by private philanthropy, could serve as a primer for developing a broader array of industry-specific partnerships.

Given the scale, complexity, and duration of the challenges facing young adults in the labor market, we urge the City to formalize a position with respect to this important group and identify a vehicle that can help more of these young adults connect to training and educational opportunities, as well as to employers.

JobsFirstNYC has proposed the creation of a network of Youth Opportunity Centers in the 18 communities that are home to more than half of the 35 Percent. Because so many of these young adults are unlikely to seek assistance outside their communities, we must bring help to them.

The Youth Opportunity Centers—operated by community based organizations that are known and trusted by residents—could serve as the locus for a range of services to reconnect young adults to education, help them to develop career plans, and link them to training, internships, apprenticeship programs, and jobs. Similar models across the country, such as the Los Angeles YouthSource Centers, have proven highly effective at connecting more young adults to education and employment.

While the City's thoughtful and long-overdue reassessment of its approach deserves credit, it is much easier to release a report than to actually see through a years-long effort of systems change. As the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development and key workforce agencies—including the NYC Department of Education, Department of Small Business Services and Human Resources Administration—begin to implement the recommendations of the Task Force, we urge them to engage a constellation of other actors who have experience in developing industrial partnerships (better known as sector partnerships), and career pathways training. Likewise, partners in this work must include nonprofits who will deliver services on the ground, and customers themselves.

The recommendations made by the Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force carry potential for real progress toward increasing the incomes of low-income New Yorkers, and represent an important start toward creating a workforce system worthy of the City it serves. But the real work has only just begun, and we hope the City will engage the full range of actors necessary to address such an ambitious agenda. At JobsFirstNYC, we remain focused on advancing economic opportunity for all young New Yorkers.

***
Louis Miceli is Executive Director of JobsFirstNYC, a nonprofit intermediary focused on connecting young adults to the economic life of New York City.

An Essential Use of the State Budget Surplus


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FDNY Foundation is one Human Services Council member organization (photo: FDNY Foundation)


Thousands of New York State residents depend on the state's non-profit human services organizations during times of disaster and unforeseen crisis. But unless we reinvest in this struggling industry, New Yorkers could find themselves left without resources in their greatest time of need.

Following the attacks of September 11th and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, human services organizations emerged as indispensable first responders that know the intricate needs of their communities. They are on the front lines providing for basic needs like food and water, safe shelter, crisis counseling immediately following a traumatic event, and extended ongoing assistance related to housing, jobs, legal matters, finances and mental health.

Employees of human services organizations have embraced opportunities to support those victimized by disasters. After Superstorm Sandy, the State awarded a contract to provide case management services for victims who needed help with housing, health care, transportation, and a myriad of other services. The Disaster Case Management program has thus far served approximately 9,700 cases, 5,000 of which remain active.

Unfortunately, the majority of human services organizations are not adequately funded by the State. Since 2010, the State has cut $1 billion from this sector, leading to the loss of 27,000 jobs. In a recent survey of the state's non-profit sector, 42% of respondents said they do not have the resources to continue to operate over the next three years.

For nonprofits to assist in disaster response and recovery, they must be fiscally sound. After Superstorm Sandy, local organizations provided frontline assistance at a significant monetary expense with no guarantee that they would be reimbursed; in fact, in a survey after the storm, only about 20% of surveyed organizations expected to be reimbursed for services provided. After September 11th, nonprofits relied on deficit spending and endowments to buy what was necessary and serve where they could, but after Sandy, many felt that similar actions would put their organization's finances in jeopardy.

Our ability to react effectively to another disaster is very much in question. If another disaster like Superstorm Sandy were to happen tomorrow the human services sector would not be financially prepared to yet again address the immediate and ongoing needs of our communities. This is a very troubling situation.

Fortunately, a remedy lies in the state's $5 billion budget surplus.

The Human Services Council, an association of approximately 200 of the state's leading human services organizations, is currently leading a campaign calling on Governor Cuomo to include a $354 million investment in the human services sector in the next Executive Budget. This would ensure that organizations providing disaster relief have the tools to react effectively when needed, help stabilize the sector, and save jobs.

For five years, the State has deferred its statutory responsibility to provide cost-of-living increases to contracts for state-funded human services, a total loss of $354 million to the sector. This short-sightedness has translated to thousands of layoffs, no raises for the employees providing disaster relief services, and the severe straining of our state's system of human services delivery.

A strong nonprofit infrastructure is crucial to communities, especially in a disaster where nonprofits can be first responders. Nonprofits must have the resources to act when needed, and the current state of funding for human services has crippled our ability to serve. A $354 million investment by the State would alleviate these concerns.

With a virtually unprecedented state budget surplus of $5 billion projected for the next year, Governor Cuomo must not miss the opportunity to better equip human services organizations to ensure the well-being of our citizens - and to continue to leap to the forefront when disasters occur.

***
by Allison Sesso, Executive Director, Human Services Council, Inc. Find her on Twitter @AllisonSesso

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The Case for Uber Data Sharing


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(photo: @Uber)


The e-receipt from your last Uber ride isn't the only record of your trip. The base that dispatched your car records a "what, when, and where" of your journey, and that information is available to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) upon request.

Soon, if the TLC's proposed rules are approved on Thursday, November 20, the agency will start storing that data on its servers and require bases to report regularly in a more efficient standardized format. As might be expected, the proposed rule change is letting an old simmering fight boil over: self-professed protectors of the free market, like Uber, are raising privacy concerns. But if Uber's comments at the TLC's October hearing are any indication, the for-hire car company is using privacy as a pretext for protecting its business interests. That makes me skeptical.

Uber is trying to vilify all data gathering when what it really wants to do is keep secret its market share. Data analysis is not inherently a bad thing, especially when accompanied by transparency, regulation, and indicia of trust.

It's hard to argue, as Uber has, that the change will intrude into driver privacy in the traditional sense. Except for identifying the car's home and dispatching bases, the information is already being recorded and required of all licensed for-hire cars in New York City. Plus, the TLC isn't interested in sensitive information about drivers, customers, or for-hire car companies. It isn't even asking for drop-off data, just pick up, base, and license information. And, in any event, the TLC gathers much more detailed information from yellow and green cabs.

But the rule may raise a different kind of privacy concern (and here, I'm relying on the work of privacy scholars like Helen Nissenbaum at NYU and Dan Solove at George Washington University Law School). Let's call it an accessibility problem. There's a big difference between, on the one hand, data being stored in fifty different dusty file cabinets at fifty different bases and, on the other hand, that same information being gathered together into one Excel spreadsheet and accessible on a government server.

I'm not referring to the statistically insignificant likelihood of a leak; any such concern is highly exaggerated. Rather, it's about access and the ease of analysis, aggregation, and (mis)categorization.

That is, admittedly, a very real concern. Recently, in the New York Times, Maryland Law Professor Frank Pasquale warned that an entire industry of data miners is pulling the floor out from under us as it skates by in the dark corners of the unregulated internet. He reminded us that real people can face real harms when sensitive information like prescription drug or medical histories gets tossed into the heap of a Kafka-esque "big data" regime.

But those real dangers are just not applicable here, and it is disingenuous for a company like Uber, which admitted at the TLC's October meeting that it was chiefly concerned with keeping secret its market share data, to turn all information gathering techniques into automatic evils.

Trip data is not as sensitive as, say, a list of prescription drugs we take. Nor is it anything like our telephone call history or our Facebook passwords. The TLC's requested information is sufficiently general so as to make it inordinately difficult, if not impossible, to find out who drove whom where and for how much. Drop-off and fare data, again, are not included.

Plus, this data could provide all sorts of benefits for the TLC and for New York City: from making it easier to keep customers safe, identify dangerous drivers, and investigate customer complaints, to helping determine which City neighborhoods are underserved by for-hire cars, assess the continued value of old laws in a world with a vibrant for-hire market, and evaluate new TLC programs, to name just a few. Data can be a wonderful tool, if used appropriately.

The question then is not whether this data collection should happen at all; rather, it is how it happens. We want information gathering to happen in a manner that protects our interest in privacy, inspires public trust, and serves the TLC's mission and the general welfare.

To those ends, the TLC should continuously fine-tune its protocols to ensure that it is a trusted guardian of trip data. And it is doing just that. It has narrowly tailored the rule to provide it with the minimum amount of data necessary to achieve its public safety goals. The TLC has appropriately balanced privacy interests with its other obligations by limiting what could be released under a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. It has developed internal protocols to keep trip data secure so that only employees who need access to these data to do their jobs would have the login and password to access the data. And it is approaching this policy change by being transparent about what is being requested, how it is being stored, and what could be released.

Privacy interests are fundamental to who we are as a society, and governments need to take them seriously by seeing themselves as stewards of our information. But data collection can open doors: it can help us create a more intelligent, more efficient, more just society. It will take a public-private partnership to do that. Manipulating the public by waving the privacy flag, however, is not good corporate citizenship.

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Ari Ezra Waldman is Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. You can follow him on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman


Brother Can You Spare A Dime? For a Bag


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The author, Bertha Lewis, left (photo: @Vote_Bichotte)


A recent New York Times column examined "The Source of New York's Greatness," and its conclusion was no surprise: our greatness comes from our status as the preeminent melting pot, both culturally and economically. We are home not just to doctors, lawyers, and bankers, but to bodega owners, shoe shiners and deli chefs. So I wonder what one of our great orators would say about the New Dime Bag?

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN HAD! A ten cent tax on plastic bags, specifically the regressive tax introduced by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, is counter-intuitive, and hurts the working class and small business owners that make our city strong. Our communities are still struggling to make ends meet, still suffering economically from the recession, and still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. We shouldn't be asking our citizens to hand over any more of their hard-earned money at the grocery counter, especially when their communities won't reap the benefit of their investment.

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN TOOK! It is hard enough for our city's working families to balance multiple jobs, multiple children, and a checkbook, without having to also worry about whether or not they remember to bring a reusable bag. Council Members Lander and Chin have tried in part to alleviate this issue by proposing to waive the tax for those on food stamps. Unfortunately, this "remedy" creates more problems than it solves. Despite an exemption for SNAP recipients, New York's working poor must still pay this tax.

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN HOODWINKED! Additionally, many small businesses are opposed to this legislation, as they would be unnecessarily burdened to enforce it. The bill is very clear on how businesses will be fined, but is conveniently vague on how small business owners should keep track of their plastic bag compliance. The bill does not mandate any sort of paper trail to help businesses prove that they are in fact complying with the new tax. Why are we making things more confusing for our small businesses, instead of helping them run more efficiently?

New Yorkers, YOU BEEN LED ASTRAY! This bill is supposed to help the environment, but the goals don't match up to reality. Plastic bags make up only 2% of the waste stream, and are nowhere near the top of the list of glaring environmental priorities for our citizens. Reusable bags are also produced overseas from petroleum, a process that is harmful to the environment. Additionally, plastic bags are 100% recyclable, and are reused in a number of ways around the house.

New York City Council has RUN AMOK! If Council Members Lander and Chin really want to make an impact, they should focus their efforts on causes that more directly benefit constituents. A recent survey found that, by a margin of 2:1, voters believe taxing plastic bags is a distraction. New Yorkers think job creation (24%), affordable housing (22%) and quality public schools (18%) are the most important issues for lawmakers to address.

Bag tax supporters like Lander and Chin hurt their constituents by further supporting the punitive and regressive tax on plastic shopping bags. Before writing and supporting legislation, our elected officials should take the time to think through their actions and consider the range of effects their proposals will have on their communities, and not just themselves. Think about all New Yorkers. DUMP THE DIME BAG!

***
Bertha Lewis is President and Founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition (BLAC).

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New York at Bargain Basement Prices


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Sen. Schumer, middle, with Congressional candidate Sean Eldridge, right (photo: @SeanEldridge)


The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates and their supporters spent nearly $4 billion in this year's election. For once, however, New York is a bargain, one of the least expensive places in the country to win a seat in Congress.

(Estimates are based on data released from the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 4)

It helps that neither of our two Senators were up for re-election this year. The top five U.S. Senate races alone totaled nearly $180 million in direct spending, with Minority (soon to be Majority) Leader Mitch McConnell spending $25 million to defeat his opponent, Alison Grimes, in Kentucky.

But in the House, a slew of uncompetitive races meant the entire 27-member New York delegation together raised just $42.1 million, an amount less than the top four House Republicans, who combined to raise $49.3 million. And special praise, perhaps, should go out to Congressman Jose Serrano, who raised the sixth least amount ($178k) of all House incumbents, and won with 97% of the vote. We can only hope that Congressman Serrano was busy legislating for New Yorkers, rather than spending most of his time on the phone to donors, like many of his colleagues across the country.

There were a few expensive campaigns in the state, especially the 19th district race between Congressman Chris Gibson and Sean Eldridge. Together they raised more $7 million, and the race ranked in the top 10 in terms of dollars raised in House.

Of course, just because the incumbents in the state weren't that busy raising money, didn't mean our state was completely left out. New York remains the place where candidates and Super PACs from across the country come to raise money. The state's residents were third behind the District of Columbia ($298 million) and California ($294 million) with $192 million in contributions (82% from New York City alone), two thirds (61%) of which went to Democrats (figures based on reporting as of Oct. 25). New Yorkers in the Upper East Side's 10022 zip code alone gave $30 million, second only to those in 94104 (San Francisco, CA) which gave $73 million.

In 2016, things may change for our state. Not only is Senator Schumer up for re-election, we may have our own, semi-home grown candidate in the presidential race. We escaped the full political ad blitz in 2014, but we may not be so lucky in two years.

Regardless of who does or does not ultimately enter the presidential contest, total spending on the campaign is likely to dwarf this midterm year and all previous presidential year elections. If historical patterns hold, it is likely that total spending in 2016 will top $8 billion, making it the most expensive campaign in U.S. history. Candidates will again seek out New Yorkers to support their bids for elected office, as will organizations with a special interest in certain issues. We may even get to see more of those salacious attack ads that voters in Georgia, Kentucky, and New Hampshire are probably glad to be rid of for a little while.

***
Heath Brown, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Public Management, John Jay College, City University of New York. You can follow him @heathbrown

Ghosts of Elections Past


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Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (photo: @erinmdurkin)


Our annual day of spooks and scares has come and gone, but it's Election Day when I'm truly haunted. I know that when I'm in the voting booth I'll feel the ominous lurking of undead politicians—the ones who just won't stay buried. On the Upper East Side where I live, for example, the spectre of soon-to-be-former Assembly Member Micah Kellner lingers.

Just last week, former Court of Appeals Judge Howard Levine upheld the Assembly Ethics Committee's decision that Kellner had through his inappropriate flirting with multiple employees created an "abusive and hostile" workplace. Kellner, in case you don't remember, is the one who told a junior staff member in her twenties during an online chat, that he "wouldn't mind falling asleep with her but not remotely."

Since sexual harassment in the workplace disproportionately affects women, I took enormous pleasure this September in supporting a worthy woman (Rebecca Seawright, who won the Democratic primary) to hold the seat Kellner is vacating. It looked like we would finally be rid of him.

My revenge-vote moment was ruined, however, when I cast my eye further down the ballot. There it was: Micah Kellner for State Committee Member. And then that night, Micah Kellner winning. I didn't vote for him, but 2,614 others did. Micah Kellner is still in elected office, folks, and while he told The New York Observer that "This isn't some comeback or rehabilitation," it sure looks like that's what he's planning.

For some infuriating reason, sexual misconduct does not seem to be a matter that male politicians consider serious enough to make them think twice about running for office. Just look at last year, when Kellner and Vito Lopez both attempted—and lost—runs for City Council amid scandal. (Lopez, after resigning from the Assembly, remains a State Committee Member like Kellner.)

It is deeply disturbing to know that multiple sexual harassment claims, which Kellner dismissively calls "sensationalized, five-year-old allegations," weren't enough to make Kellner question whether he should continue to run, then or now.

Even more upsetting: this time we let him win.

Kellner, Lopez, and other politicians seem to think these issues are awkward, but surmountable. They don't believe that their sexual misconduct means they shouldn't get to hold public office. This attitude of entitlement and exception sends a message to people—primarily women—that if they are harassed by male superiors, it doesn't matter. And it sends an even more insidious message when we, the voters, don't hold them accountable.

On a much grander stage, entitlement and exception led NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to attempt their despicable cover-ups of 'the Ray Rice incident.' These powerful men tolerated the intolerable in order to protect their jobs and the reputations of their respective organizations. Doing the right thing wasn't important enough to them until real public pressure built.

Entitlement and exception led Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to attempt to hide Lopez's harassment with a confidentiality clause in the secret settlement that was requested by Lopez, not the female staffers he harassed. Not that Lopez and Kellner are isolated incidents—see the list of accusations against former Assembly Member Dennis Gabryszak for still other examples of the behaviors that have occurred on Silver's watch.

Silver is currently facing claims that he "aided and abetted" Lopez's pattern of abuse through his failure to take official action. This is not mere rhetoric: Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, serving as special prosecutor to investigate the case, concluded that Silver's deliberate behavior "encouraged" Lopez to continue harassing. Protecting the Assembly's interests, Donovan wrote in his report, "outweighed any interest in investigating or disciplining Assembly Member Lopez or in preventing similar occurrences in the future." [emphasis added]

So there it is: the choices of Silver, Goodell, Bisciotti, and other leaders who look the other way encourage abusers and harassers to keep abusing and harassing. They know that under leaders like these, they won't have to pay. We may not be able to elect the NFL Commissioner or oust an owner, but we can do something about candidates like Silver (who faces a challenger on Election Day), Lopez, and Kellner. When we continue to vote these men into office—or don't bother to vote against them—we are equally complicit in perpetuating these patterns of abuse and harassment.

If we refuse to tolerate sexual harassment and attitudes of entitlement and exception when we're at the polls, then those in power will truly feel that they have something to lose. But until the majority of us take that stand, sexual harassers will continue to operate with impunity.

In September, Kellner bet on the voters not caring enough about his sexual misconduct when it wasn't on the front page. His victory is our loss. Next time he or a similar candidate is on the ballot, we need to do better—for women, for workers, and for ourselves, the voters of New York who have a choice.

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Sara Gold is a community organizer active in local issues and politics. She has been a resident of Assembly District 76 for three years. Follow her on Twitter @saragold2

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@GothamGazette

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Hate Hyper-Partisanship? Support Redistricting Reform Now


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Gov. Cuomo is among those who have expressed support for Prop 1 (photo: @NYGovCuomo)


This column originally appeared at The Daily Beast

With the congressional reelection rate at 95 percent, it's no wonder many voters won't bother to show up Tuesday. But New Yorkers have an important chance to reform their rigged system.

After some $4 billion spent on the 2014 midterms, voter turnout is expected to be down again this Election Day. It's no wonder. The past few years of ugly gridlocked bloodsport politics have driven many Americans out of the arena in disgust.

But there's a stark disconnect between anti-incumbent anger at the least popular, most polarized, and least productive Congress in U.S. history and the 95 percent reelection rate most of the gutless wonders on Capitol Hill have come to expect.

Indeed, 77 members of Congress are facing no opposition at all this fall, depriving voters in their districts of any choice on Election Day. Of course turnout is down: For many voters, there's no reason to show up.

This sick status quo is a result of the rigged system of redistricting. Every 10 years, after the Census, legislators get together and draw district lines in collusion. Politicians pick their people rather than people picking their politicians.

After winning the 2010 elections, Republicans drew enough safe seats to give them something close to a lock on the House of Representatives for the next decade. Two years later, Democrats won half a million more votes for Congress than Republicans did, but the GOP was able to keep control of the House easily. This corrupt bargain results in a decade-long stasis, with far-reaching implications.

In the South, for example, white congressional Democrats have been essentially redistricted out of existence, with Republican-controlled legislatures clustering oddly shaped minority districts in urban areas while leaving lily-white rural and suburban majorities for themselves.

Outcomes are similarly lopsided in swing states like Pennsylvania, where Democrats won 83,000 more votes statewide in the 2012 congressional elections and won five House seats, while Republicans won 13.

Usually, voters have to wait 10 years to have a chance to reform the rigged system of redistricting, and even then the party in power tends to live by the maxim "to the victor go the spoils."

Don't be fooled by high minded-sounding excuses for inaction. This is the best shot we've got for holding professional partisans accountable to the people.

But this year, New Yorkers have a shot at making real changes through a ballot initiative sonorously known as Prop 1. It represents perhaps the last, best chance to reform the incumbent protection racket in the Empire State, taking the power from politicos and lobbyists with more independence and transparency than ever before.

First, consider the septic depth of the problem. New York has a 97 percent reelection rate for state lawmakers, although 28 elected officials have been forced from office on corruption charges over the past decade. You're more likely to leave office in New York state in handcuffs than to lose a general election. No wonder the state ranks toward the bottom in voter turnout.

Every 10 years, the parties collude on district lines drafted by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader aided by lobbyists, doling out favors and punishing those rare independent-minded officials who break with the party line. The result is safe seats that lead to apathy and voter impotence, leading logically to ever-declining voter turnout. Overall, 46 percent of legislative incumbents, almost half, were uncontested in their reelection efforts. In central New York this year, there is no option other than the six incumbents on the ballot for state Senate.

But Prop 1 could be the turning point. Legislators and lobbyists would be kicked out of the process and replaced with an independent commission that ensures bipartisan and third-party representation, and a super-majority for passage. New rules would specifically forbid partisan gerrymandering, barring the favoring of incumbents while preserving common-sense communities of interest and protecting minority representation. No more cynically cutting opposition candidates out of a district for petty political purposes. More public input and transparency than ever before.

Not surprisingly, professional partisans hate Prop 1. What's more surprising is how divided so-called good government groups in New York are over this plan to reform redistricting. (Full disclosure: I'm on the board of one of the groups supporting the effort, Citizens Union, but I've been writing in favor of redistricting reform for over a decade.)

So let's take on the twin reasons for opposing Prop 1. The first comes fashionably cloaked in idealism, from self-styled political reformers who say this reform doesn't go far enough. Reality check: Perfect is never on the menu, especially in Albany. Prop 1 is largely modeled on the exhaustively lauded reform in Iowa. In addition, New York's reform would create an enforceable ban on partisan gerrymandering that would allow citizens to hold the legislature accountable by taking legislators to court if necessary. And unlike in California, which has frequent ballot propositions that amount to direct democracy—and which led to a successful redistricting reform earlier this decade—New York requires two consecutive votes of the state legislature on anything that could be considered a constitutional amendment. That happened under massive public pressure, led by the late New York City mayor Ed Koch, in the run-up to 2012. It won't happen again anytime soon because it's simply not in legislators' general interest to give up power. So opposition to Prop 1 on allegedly idealistic grounds is essentially an endorsement of the status quo. Delay is denial.

The second reason is rarely heard in polite company but it's the more honest and realistic reason: Liberal Democrats see their chance to run the table after 2020. Because the national GOP has moved so far right, New York is trending toward becoming a one-party state, and some of the deepest policy debates come from two competing wings of the Democratic Party. Redistricting reform could end up ensuring that Republicans and a handful of third parties keep a degree of influence via inclusion when it comes time to draw up the lines, rather than allowing Democrats to dominate all decisions.

But don't take my word for it. Now indicted Democrat state Sen. Malcolm Smith explicitly said the same thing in 2010: "With the Democrats in control of the state Senate, we are going to draw the lines so that Republicans will be in oblivion in the state of New York for the next 20 years."

Ballot propositions often seem like afterthoughts in elections, and the phrase "redistricting reform" can make even civically engaged eyes glaze over. But if you're one of the millions of Americans sickened by the extreme polarization, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock that's making a laughingstock of our democracy, you should care about the real-time fight for this fundamental election reform.

Don't be fooled by high minded-sounding excuses for inaction. This is the best shot we've got for holding professional partisans accountable to the people. If we fail, the ugly, cynical situation is guaranteed to get worse for decades to come. If we succeed, the result will be more competitive general elections and increased voter turnout. For New Yorkers, the choice is yours and the time is now.

This column originally appeared at The Daily Beast

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John Avlon is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Why I'm Voting 'Yes' on the Smart Schools Bond Act, Proposition 3


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Gov. Cuomo at an event in Buffalo (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


There has been much controversy and confusion over the Smart Schools Bond Act, which voters will approve or deny by voting on Tuesday, Election Day. Proposition 3 on the back of ballots, the Smart Schools Bond Act would authorize the sale of bonds to generate $2 billion statewide for capital funding. Each school district can use the revenue in the following ways:

· Purchasing educational technology equipment and facilities, such as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and high-speed broadband or wireless internet.
· Constructing and modernizing facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space.
· Installing high-tech security features in school buildings.

While I and many other education advocates including Diane Ravitch are fervently opposed to using any bond revenue for the purchase of devices like laptops or tablets that have a useful lifetime of only a few years, as the interest on the bond act is repaid over twenty or thirty years, it is clear that districts will have the choice of how to use these funds and have a broad array of options.

New York City is due to receive about $780 million if Proposition 3 is approved. The Department of Education's five year capital plan makes it clear that if the bond act passes, $490 million of city funds previously directed toward technology would now be diverted toward building more schools to alleviate overcrowding for smaller classes, creating 4,900 more seats, and the rest toward creating 2,100 seats for pre-kindergarten.

As the analysis in our report Space Crunch makes clear, the city's school capital plan is badly underfunded as is. Though it will includes less than 40,000 additional seats if the Bond Act is approved – and even fewer if it isn't – the real need is at least 100,000 seats, given existing overcrowding and projections of increased enrollment over the next five to ten years.

Moreover, we have thousands of kindergarten children on waiting lists for their zoned school each year, and many thousands more sitting in trailers, temporary structures which are long past their expected lifetime and many leaky and rotting away. While the New York Times reported 7,158 students in trailers, the real figure is likely more than 10,000 students, since the lower number does not include any of the thousands of high school students or many disabled children attending classes in these substandard structures.

I understand the reluctance of parents outside the city who fear wasted funds on computer devices, as in the Los Angeles iPad scandal, which led to the resignation of their superintendent, or the Amplify tablet fiasco in Guilford, North Carolina. Like them, I also oppose the proliferation of online testing and instruction, which is motivated primarily by the desire to eliminate teachers and to benefit data-mining educational technology companies, eager to make a buck off our kids. Class Size Matters successfully led the fight to stop the state's plan to share personal student information with the corporation called inBloom Inc., designed to facilitate the incursion of data-mining vendors in schools, and inBloom closed its doors last spring.

Yet voters elsewhere in the state have elected school boards and should be actively engaged in the decision-making of how to best use the proceeds of the Bond Act. In addition, all parents have the right to opt out of any online data-mining instructional or testing program that collects personal data, whether their children participate in this program at school or home, according to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). They should exercise that right if they so choose. Class Size Matters and the national coalition we co-chair, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, will work to make sure that all parents are informed of their right to do so. We will also continue to fight for the right of children to be able to learn in smaller classes where they receive the personal attention of their teachers in uncrowded schools – and that's why I'm voting for Proposition 3 on Tuesday, and urge others to do the same.

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Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. Follow her on twitter @leoniehaimson

Report Shows Extent of Racialized Criminalization over last 30 years


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PC Bratton gives a briefing (photo: @NYPDNews)


This week's report on the frequency and distribution of misdemeanor arrests from 1980 to today from John Jay College of Criminal Justice provides clear evidence of what many have known for years. The NYPD is engaged in a wide-ranging social experiment in the mass criminalization of poor non-white New Yorkers.

The report shows that misdemeanor arrests have increased from about 60,000 a year in the early 80s to almost 250,000 today. Last year the arrest rate for whites was 1.2 percent, compared to an arrest rate of 6.4 percent for blacks and 4.4 percent for Hispanics.

Misdemeanor arrest rates for all three groups almost doubled from 1990 to 2010. White rates rose from 0.7 percent in 1990 to a high of 1.4 percent in 2011, black rates rose from a low of 3.6 percent in 1990 to a high of 7.5 percent in 2010. Hispanics saw a smaller increase, from 2.5 percent in 1990 to a high of 4.7 percent in 2010.

The bulk of the charges seen in this massive expansion involve low-level drug enforcement, especially of marijuana, prohibitions against commercial sex work, the many disorderly activities associated with living on the streets, and a variety of minor offenses mostly engaged in by young people such as graffiti and riding a bike on the sidewalk.

A shocking 25% of all misdemeanor arrests since 1980 have been for low-level drug violations, including 1 million arrests for marijuana.

The impact on the youngest New Yorkers has been the starkest. 16-17 year olds, who are treated as adults in New York State, saw their rate of arrest jump from 3.2% in 1980 to over 10% in in 2010. That means one in every ten 16-17 year olds was arrested for a misdemeanor in 2010.

Since these arrests are heavily concentrated in communities of color, in some places closer to 3 in every 10 young men in this age group face arrest each year. While that rate has since declined some, we are saddling these young people with permanent arrest records for low level drug involvement, jumping the turnstile, and playground fights in mind numbing numbers. The involvement of police in school safety enforcement has only worsened that trend by criminalizing schoolroom misbehavior as well.

During the 30-year period covered by the report, there has been an explosive increase in poverty and homelessness in New York City, especially among communities of color. African-Americans in particular are poorer and more socially isolated. Our City's response to this profound growth in inequality has been mass criminalization through the War on Drugs and the drive to eliminate "quality of life" problems through heavy-handed zero-tolerance policing, spurred on by a slavish adherence to the unproven "Broken Windows" theory. There is no substantial evidence that this massive expansion in misdemeanor arrests for drug violations, sex work, youthful misbehavior, and the activities associated with living out of doors is responsible for what is an international drop in crime. Hundreds of cities around the world have enjoyed major decreases in crime during this same period without relying on these techniques.

There is, however, clear evidence of the negative consequences of the increased usage of misdemeanor arrests on those arrested and the communities they come from. While disorderly behaviors have been reduced by aggressive policing, it has also torn apart families, destroyed livelihoods, and alienated many from the police, work, and city services.

In addition, the social problems being criminalized by the NYPD have shown no signs of improvement. Unemployment among young men of color remains at very high levels—in some communities topping 50%. Homelessness has increased throughout the period of the report. At the same time, drug use and drug availability remain pervasive, as does access to commercial sex. In other words, life for the poorest New Yorkers remains desperate and their problems are typically compounded by intensive criminalization.

Even if the massive increase in misdemeanor arrests was somehow responsible for a part of the crime decline, the social and financial costs are too high. The high costs of police time, court time, and over $100,000 per bed per year to run the prison on Rikers Island, means the arrest and jailing of people for even short periods is a gross misuse of limited city resources. The intensive criminalization of almost entirely minority populations flies in the face of any effort to reduce inequality, create equal opportunities for all, and improve the real quality of life in minority communities.

We must find lasting solutions to inequality that don't rely on criminalization. Drug use and drug dealing, sex work, and the disorderly behaviors associated with living on the streets are very real social problems, but criminalization at best papers over these problems and in some cases makes the problems and the lives of those involved worse. Resources devoted to criminalization must be repurposed to initiatives designed to create pathways out of homelessness and poverty. We must stop relying on homeless shelters, emergency rooms, and jails to deal with people living on the streets, we must find real economic opportunities for young people of color that take into account the challenges of educational failure, discrimination, and long-term poverty.

We can start with increasing permanent housing with transitional support services for those most in need, a massive expansion in public housing, and reforms to make living conditions better could improve life for hundreds of thousands. We need a major increase in the minimum wage to ensure that those who are working make enough to steer clear from participation in black markets. We need an increase in the standard of living for city employees, who have endured decades of austerity contracts, which has contributed to a thinning out of the middle class in the city, and we need further investment in non-punitive anti-violence initiatives for young people with wraparound services.

Finally we must decriminalize drugs and sex work and address whatever concrete harms are associated with them through community-based initiatives that don't rely on the police, courts, and jails.

The mayor is beginning to pursue some of these strategies, but the needs are huge and resources limited. He should stop wasting precious resources on criminalization and put them where they will do more good than harm.

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Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to hte Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale