Eighth Grade is Not Enough! NYC Students Protest Budget Cuts

The more things change, the more they stay the same, especially in the case of the New York City Educational System. Just as a parents, teachers, and educators are given reason to be optimistic about the future of New York City Education, hopes are dashed.

In January of 2001 Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, finding that the current state school funding system denies students in New York City the opportunity for a sound and basic education. In his decision, DeGrasse states that a "sound and basic education" consists of the fundamental skills that students need to become productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment." To achieve this, DeGrasse said that school districts had to ensure that things like a sufficient number of qualified teachers, appropriate class sizes, and up-to-date learning materials were available for students.

On June 25, 2002 in a daunting turn of events, the State Supreme Court’s Appellate division voted 4-1 in favor of reversing the DeGrasse decision. In his appeal, Justice Alfred D. Lerner states that the skills "imparted between grades 8 and 9" by law are sufficient for "a sound and basic education." In other words preparing public school children for low level jobs is also constitutionally legitimate. Lerner states in his appeal, "Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may be low level."

It’s no secret, the New York City Public School system has consistently remained in hard times, even throughout the 90’s when the economy was booming. In 1999 at our economy’s peek New York City spent $9,623 per pupil a year. The rest-of-state average was $10,800 per pupil and wealthier districts spent $12,799.

City students now represent 37% of the state’s total student population but the city’s school districts but only receive 34% of the funding. Three-percent may not look like a lot on paper, but it makes a big difference when it comes to educational resources in New York City.

"Sometimes I feel that politicians don’t even know what’s coming out of their mouth. How can they even say that? They didn’t grow up with an eighth grade education."
--Alex Cross, 16, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition

Coming at the heels of a hefty education budget cut, the decision severely denies public school children the proper learning materials needed to achieve high academic standards.

For many of the 1.1 million New York City public school students, education is the only sure way to escape poverty. Toby Molinary, 17, of Bread and Roses High School in Harlem, NY sees his education as a base for his future plans. This court decision has caused him to reflect on the role school plays in his life.

"If I did not go to school I would be running the streets or dead. Toby says, I hate school sometimes but I know when I am done I will be able to do so much. I will be able to help my family and myself."

In a school system where achievement means gaining minimum wage employment, many students are concerned.

Like many of his counterparts, Bronx resident Alex Cross, 16, had a worried and angry reaction to the appellate court’s decision. Cross says, "Sometimes I feel that politicians don’t even know what’s coming out of their mouth. How can they even say that? They didn’t grow up with just an eighth grade education."

He says he has little faith in the intentions of decision-makers. "If ‘children are the future,’ we are supposed to be able to rely on the words of our leaders and politicians. With that support from them we think we are going to succeed. When we hear stuff like that [the appellate court overturn], it basically lowers our confidence. It tells us that we’re not going to go anywhere. "

The court decision has caused student Fernando Carlo, 16, to reassess his personal goals. He feels that the standard for achievement is not set high enough. "I don’t want to work in a fast food restaurant. I want to have a good education. I want to go to college. I want to take up different things. I eventually want to have a business of my own."

In essence, these students are being set up to fail. While academic achievement levels go up in the state of New York, stifling spending formulas for city education are ensuring a gross lack of materials, overcrowded classrooms, and declining teacher retention rates. All this culminates to form a domino effect for teachers and students.

Current public school teacher, Patricia Goff foresees a mass departure of teachers in the next two years if the resource needs of teachers and students aren’t addressed.

"You’re going to have a lot of good teachers leaving the system."

She feels this is due in part to a lack of respect teachers get from policy makers. She says, "Teachers are fed up with not being heard and respected as professionals. Teachers have to feel like they can succeed."

In an attempt to safeguard against this, the board reports that they have attracted more than 8,000 new qualified teachers and raised entry-level teacher salaries from $31,910 to $39,000. Though attracting new teacher and retaining old ones is important, former New York City public school teacher Kenney Robinson feels the lack of educational resources is what truly fails to fulfill the professional needs of the teacher.

"If you gave them more resources the money issue wouldn’t have been so contentious." He states, "But even with the money they weren’t able to do their job because they didn’t have the resources."

New York City public school students are not taking this issue lightly. In early June some 20,000 city students assembled in front of city hall to address the issue at hand and to send the message to Mayor Michael Bloomberg [and any other legislator watching] that they would not support the proposed cuts in education. Alex played a part in organizing the event.

As a young activist, he hopes that more youth in his community become involved. He describes the organizing process, saying, "You get everyone who’s going to be affected by [the budget cuts] involved so they feel the importance of the issue. You inform them and then you take action. Political action." Once understanding and awareness are achieved, "you go in front of their [politician] office and protest where it’s safe and where it’s legal-- where you’re not breaking any laws, especially if you’re a youth--you don’t need to be breaking any laws."

For Alex, the deterioration of his Bronx neighborhood is the driving force behind his organizing. "Only I can change the bad things about my environment and the people around me. I feel if I can just get a little knowledge into some people’s heads and form a community meeting where people show up, that shows progress...We can do something about it."

For more views and information on this topic take a look at these stories:
From the United Federation of Teachers Website:

Picturing The School System, With Numbers

Graduation Daze: Behind The Numbers

From the Urban Think Tank Website:
NYS Appeals Court Says...

In this land where education supposedly equals opportunity, the social contract with the children says that it is expected that all children -- no matter their socioeconomic background, race, or religion -- be entitled to obtain through education the skills and values needed to become productive citizens of the United States. In this saga dubbed the "New York City Education System," however someone is not living up to their end of the bargain.

By virtue of such controversy young journalists in New York City have become more vocal in attempts to become part of the solution in the fight to reform public school education.

In a recent article in"Harlem Live" Bronx, NY native Reuben Quansah, 17, suggested getting more parents involved. He said "there are many parents who do not have the knowledge or the power to make changes." He believes that the lack of parent involvement is due to the fact that many parents: "lack an awareness of what is going on."

In a recent "WNYC Radio Rookies" broadcast, Jesus Gonzalez (radio rookie) offers New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg some solutions for the failing state of education in New York City. Jesus suggests, "You should make sure that all schools have at least the supplies they need; and for the less fortunate schools in poor communities of New York, look at the model of alternative schools that are working effectively. If you can't do that, you should think again about being in charge of the Board of Education."

Jason Patterson, 22, is a WireTap summer fellow who attended private high schools in and around New York City, because, as he says, his mother "wouldn't have it."


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