Equitable funding advocates flood Albany hoping to redirect education debate

Teachers, students and union leaders from New York City traveled to Albany on Monday to rally for more funding and call for legislators to reign in charter-school growth.

Hundreds of people packed into a staircase in the Capitol during the event, which they dubbed “Moral Monday” after the education-funding focused protests in North Carolina. Organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, the event was the first of what organizers said would be weekly demonstrations throughout this winter and spring meant to counter Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own education agenda.

AQE Executive Director Billy Easton said he wants to see the legislature adopt the Board of Regents’ proposal to increase general education funding by $1.1 billion, about half of which would be targeted at districts with many poor students, such as New York City.

Speakers included Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, and Michael Mulgrew, head of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, who said he hoped the event would redirect education-policy debates. Mulgrew took the opportunity to chastise Gov. Cuomo for harping on other issues like the state’s teacher evaluation law.

“They’re all distractions versus one thing. It’s called funding,” Mulgrew said. “That is the issue on education that needs to be solved, yet I don’t hear the governor talking about that at all.”

While school funding has increased in recent years, many districts haven’t fully recovered from the recession that started in 2009 and resulted in a $2 billion reduction in state education spending. In New York City, those cuts forced schools do more with less, which usually meant excessing teaching positions while class sizes swelled.

Between 2010 and 2012, the gap between per-pupil spending in New York City and the average per-pupil spending of the state’s 100 wealthiest districts grew from $4,655 to $6,651, according to Easton. The spending gap between the state’s wealthiest districts and poorer districts such as New York City emerges as wealthier districts raise significantly more funds through local property taxes.

Advocates said they were hopeful that the political climate is shifting in a favorable direction. Megan Moskop, a New York City teacher who took a personal day to participate in the rally, pointed to a recent the New York Times editorial that argued that inequitable school funding was a “central crisis” facing public education as an example of shifting sentiment.

“Finally, teachers aren’t to blame for everything wrong with society,” said Moskop.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the state spends about three times as much on poor districts as it does on its wealthy districts, and criticized the event’s message.

“It’s ludicrous that some special interests are seeking to create a false choice between closing the achievement gap between rich and poor districts and the Governor’s efforts to protect taxpayers, while also injecting accountability and innovation into the system,” said the spokesman, Richard Azzopardi.

Charter school advocates made their own case for equitable funding on Monday. Parents and teachers from New York City charter schools sent a total of 4,800 letters written to Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio asking for facilities funding and more money in their per-pupil allocation, which is less than what district schools receive.