Michael Blake (70222)

The current education debate in Albany has been elevated because of the need to pass a New York state budget by March 31. Education advocates on both sides are tall on ideology, but we are all falling short on cooperation and remembering that this is about the children.

The dialogue is fascinating, ranging from school funding to teacher performance, tenure, evaluation, public versus charter and private versus parochial. All of these considerations are necessary and timely to improve the academic, social, mental and physical setting for young people. But the tone has become incredibly divisive. Advocates on all sides of the discourse say that we are “at war.” Actually, we are not, so let’s leave that terminology to those who serve us honorably in uniform. I understand that we are all passionate on how about improve the lives of our children and give them paths to success. But this conversation is unproductive if it’s an “either or” consideration rather than a “both and” where we acknowledge that each side has legitimate points on how to transform our educational system for the better and determine a path forward.

We are sometimes invoking terms and images of savagery rather than pursuing constructive compromise. This is not the first time that I have heard the word savage used to describe education. In “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools,” Jonathon Kozol described my elementary school, P.S. 79, in that way. Given the challenges that my great principal, James Carter, had to endure to empower our minds and hearts, it saddens me that instead of being described as scholarly, we were described as “savage.” In large part, that framing was not because of my future, but because of my ZIP code.

I grew up in the Bronx. I lived a block away from school, where I passed the corner bodega on one side and bought my slice of pizza on another. Deep down, I knew that our schools didn’t have what we needed, because of inadequate funding.

In 1993, that financial disparity reality came to greater light when the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was established and later led to the landmark victory in C.F.E. v. State of New York, where the coalition successfully argued that the city’s school finance system was woefully underfunded and denied its students their constitutional right of a sound basic education.

That decision addressed the chronic shortfalls for New York City schools, but its logic carried to upstate’s mix of poor urban districts and high-tax, low-wealth small town and rural districts.

The remedy for curing that finding of unconstitutionality was robust funding under a more equitable formula called Foundation Aid, which attacked unfairness, regardless of a school’s region, racial or income mix, by dividing allocations by district student enrollment and assessing student need and local ability to pay. Sadly, Foundation Aid was fully funded only in the 2007-2008 fiscal year. The Great Recession knocked that full funding off the tracks, and the inequities re-emerged​ to the point of approximately $4.9 billion CFE money still owed to public schools in our neediest areas. This inequality hits close to home, as my Assembly district is owed a staggering $76 million in CFE money—more than any Assembly district in New York City. Imagine what that funding could do for our kids? Smaller classroom sizes, more teachers, school supplies, books, building repairs, etc.

You compare this intolerable reality with the equal gut blow of 10 of the 178 “failing” (I prefer struggling) schools are in my district alone. It’s beyond unjust and inhumane. The conditions we are putting our students, teachers, administrators, principals and parents in are “savage.” We need to begin and continue a constructive conversation about education improvements and reform​.

As we negotiate, let’s be clear that education funding should not be linked to teacher evaluations or other mandatory proposed changes. Schools and students should not have to wait on necessary funds as we discuss our path forward. Here are a few suggestions on where we can start.

First, this debate is about the children. Not principles or principals. Children. Not test scores nor polls. Children!

Second, we cannot be serious about reform unless we get back to correcting the funding inequities. Schools in my area and upstate, as well as in low-wealth, high-tax suburban districts, need to return, with all deliberate speed, to the path of full Foundation Aid funding.

Third, let’s stop pretending the debate is about whether we should have charter schools. I have 16 charter schools in my district. Some are exceptional, some are good, some are struggling—the same attributes of all other schools that surround us. But they are attempting to help our young people, especially students of color. We should not block charter schools​, because many parents see them as an option for their children. (Remember, the first one in New York state was the Sisulu-Walker Charter School in Harlem, not some far-off place.) They were created to serve as a pilot space to bring best practices to scale.

The question becomes how best to house charter schools without being unfair on the gritty reality of co-location. However, we should also not make the vast majority of students in the traditional public schools orphans in their own school buildings​​.

Fourth, many Catholic schools and Yeshivas have a long and proud record of achievement in educating New Yorkers. Let’s find out what we can do to help them continue their good work.

Fifth, I strongly support the Community Renewal Schools​ process of extended learning hours and expanded school days—reforms that could be vital for better educational outcomes.​ Many children are coming to school not just for education but for social services, mental health, physical activity and a sense of love and care that too often is absent from their lives. Let’s empower the whole child and give our schools the resources and plans and hold them accountable to turn around the struggling settings so that the whole child and the whole system improve.

We must give struggling schools time and resources they need to turn their schools around.​ I truly believe that if you help a student pick up a book, then pick up a check, they probably don’t pick up a gun. To give us the best chance for that, we must provide the resources, structure and accountability to make those dreams become the reality of those voices.

Sixth, I do believe there must be a new and much fairer way to evaluate teachers and all members of the educational system to ensure accountability​. Yes, we need a teacher evaluation system, but let’s make sure it is fair, providing the right incentives so that it is good teaching and not test-taking that is being evaluated. A test score in isolation is not the best way to assess if children are learning and growing in their journey of life.

Seventh, I support mayoral control. We gave former Mayor Michael Bloomberg time. Mayor Bill de Blasio deserves time, too.

Eighth​, we need to internalize the results of a UCLA study from 2014, pointing to the poison of racial and economic segregation​ that exists in the education system​, underlining educational equality​ and conveying that the root issue of unacceptable discriminatory structures must be addressed sooner rather than later​.

Ninth, we cannot rest until the Dream Act is passed so that successful immigrant students are no longer denied higher education.​ Dream is not just for the Latino community but also the African and Caribbean community as well. As a child of Jamaican immigrants, I am passionate that all of us deserve to realize our dreams. Education, economic development and equality for all is how we set that course of dream realization.

​Lastly, let’s ensure that quality teachers have the opportunity for tenure. Teachers must be given the resources and tools for success, and an opportunity to work together to turn around the conditions in their classroom.

We are not savage people, so let’s not have savage conversations pertaining to our children.

In Albany, this is our moment to show, as Jim Wallis once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

I believe that all of us—students, parents, administrators, principals, legislators, Governor Cuomo, the education reform movement, Alliance for Quality Education, teachers, Merrill Tisch and the Board of Regents, etc.—want the best for our children, so let’s come together now for them.

I urge all New Yorkers who agree to make their voices heard by calling your state senator or legislator at 518-455-4100. Let’s build a consensus to strengthen schools, especially those that have struggled. If we demand change, change will come. Let’s stop branding schools as failures precisely because that leads students to feel that they will be failures.

Our children are not failures. You are life’s beautiful zenith we aspire to obtain. The only failure here will occur if we don’t come together as one to provide transformational improvement and reform to the education system. We are here for the children, not for our own sound bites.

I’m not saying the conversation on how to fix these systemic educational, community blights and challenges will be easy, but it certainly should never be savage.