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Cuomo riles parents during State of the State address

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 11/1/2012, 11:53 a.m.
Cuomo tries to strong-arm state Ed Dept. and unions into agreement

During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have aroused a moment of laugher and levity when he voiced his concern about being "a lobbyist for the students," but for far too many parents, teachers and students, it was a poke in the eye.

Taking exception with the governor's comments, however they were intended, were more than 500 parents and students from 42 school districts across the state as they marched on Albany for quality education. Rather than supporting Cuomo's promise to lobby for the students, the protesters assumed that the responsibility was theirs.

"Last year's $1.3 billion cut was two to three times as large in poor districts as in wealthy districts," charged Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education. "As a result, already underfunded districts had to choose to make cuts to the quality of the curriculum; cuts in arts, music and sports, cuts in tutoring and in college prep courses or all of the above."

Ansari, a mother of eight children who are either in public schools or who have graduated, said, "The governor has a chance to take a step in the right direction for our schools and children by following the Board of Regents' recommendations and directing 95 percent of his new school aid to high-need and average-need schools."

Equally outraged was Dr. John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. "If the United States is to remain a strong democracy, economically stable and a good global citizen, states must be held to a commitment of providing each child an opportunity to learn," he said in a press release. "If New York is to be a progressive leader among states, it must fulfill its commitment to equity and opportunity in every classroom. The alternative is both morally indefensible and strategically unwise. It is clear today that the people must push their leaders to this level of systemic accountability."

One leader who needs no prodding from concerned parents, students or teachers is Brooklyn Assemblywoman Inez Barron. In an email, Barron challenged Cuomo's assertions about being a "lobbyist" for the children, insisting he's been nothing but the opposite.

"In 2006," she began, itemizing the failures, "after a 13-year battle led by lobbyists for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the courts found that for decades, certain students in New York State had been the victims of deliberate, systemic underfunding. Legislation was enacted to seek to provide redress for this egregious condition.

"The Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007," continued Barron, herself a former celebrated teacher, "allocated $7 billion to compensate schools for decades of inequitable funding, which had resulted in students being denied their rights to basic education by virtue of overcrowded classrooms, outdated books, classrooms held in trailers, underfunded staff development and other injustices.

"The courts determined that New York City was to receive $5.5 billion to be paid from year 2007 through 2011. For the past three budget years, there has not been any funding to adhere to the court decision. In fact, there has been a major reduction, and the timeline for the allocation of the remaining $3.2 billion has passed."

Brenda Crump, a parent advocate from Mt. Vernon with seven children, said, "Our Mt. Vernon City School District faces many challenges and has many educational needs. In the past two years, the loss of state aid resulted in fewer teachers and increased class sizes. Our students are losing out on art, music, and media-library depending on which schools they attend. Some schools have music but not art; some have neither. Our students need textbooks and materials. We have classes where students cannot take textbooks home because there are simply not enough to share."

No matter what region of the state you travel to, from the impoverished precincts of Buffalo to the desperate lives in Harlem, the complaints have a similar ring about the governor's plans, which extend beyond education to the lack of jobs, the environment and taxes.

However, the most disgust has come from angry parents and their advocates, and for Cuomo to give lip service "to education as a civil rights issue and posture as a 'lobbyist,'" said Barron, "is but empty rhetoric, which, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., comes back to us marked 'insufficient funds.'"