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School of Priorities

Hundreds turn out to lobby the state for more school aid where it’s needed most

by Erin Pihlaja on March 15, 2012

“It was a very emotional day. Students were crying. There were no answers given,” said Mark Emanation, a community organizer with Citizen Action of New York and the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) in the Capital District.

Get smart: Students and activists rally for public education funding. Photo by Julia Zave.

Emanation was referring to the Education Lobby Day held at the Capitol on Wednesday. The AQE organized the event to protest and rally against budget cuts that they say are causing an educational crisis in New York State. The Assembly and Senate recently redirected $200 million that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had set aside for competitive grants, but organizers say that it is nowhere near enough.

“Competitive grants are chunks of money that the governor set aside to have school districts compete for. It’s unfair to ask children to compete for money, every child has a right to a quality education. Not just a quality one, but a great one,” said Jessie Lapolla, an organizer with AQE in the Capital Region.

Besides moral issues with the competitive grants, Lapolla said that they just aren’t fair. “In New York State, if we ask children to compete . . . it’s just not a level playing field. Inner-city and rural school are affected the most, but all kids get affected by these cuts.” Lapolla noted that schools in wealthier districts give more opportunities to kids than in poor ones.

Emanation agreed: “The problem with competitive grants is that schools who need them the most don’t have grant writers. The wealthier schools do.”

Budget cuts in recent years have forced schools to trim the fat everywhere that they can. “In Averill Park, there are gaping holes in their school funding,” Lapolla said. “They are looking at having to cut all nonmandated programs like kindergarten, electives, AP courses, arts, music and extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs.”

Emanation said this situation is common in school districts all over the state. “In Cambridge, schools will lose 14 teachers next year, they will go to half-day kindergarten, they will lose before- and after-school programs, Pre-K, extra curricular actives, sports, and AP courses.”

Since kindergarten isn’t mandated by New York state, both Emanation and Lapolla expect to see it on the chopping block in many school districts.

“That’s the story with all of these schools dealing with these cuts,” Emanation said. “These schools have already cut bus runs, they haven’t bought a new computer in years, teachers haven’t gotten raises, and they’ve already got teachers teaching extra courses. They are right down to the bone now. Everyone is trying to do their part, except for the extremely wealthy of New York state.”

Emanation and others feel that the governor should close tax loopholes for corporations and redistribute money back to people who need it most, especially youth. “These kids are being told that they need to get an education, they need one to get a job. But we’re not providing that,” he said.

Lapolla and Emanation were happy with Wednesday’s turnout. An estimated 1,800 people from all over the state showed up to lobby their legislators, write letters, and rally in the Capitol building. “Most of the people down there weren’t lobbyists,” Emanation said. “They were real people. We had clergy, union people, teachers, parents, little kids and lots of high-schoolers. It was very uplifting, but they didn’t get a very good answer.”

“We’ve never had an event this large before,” Lapolla said. “People are starting to realize how much these cuts really hurt. If there are more cuts, next year will be even bigger. Putting back $200 million from the competitive grants to general support aid is great, but more needs to be done. If they want us to go away, they need to do right by our schools.”