First Person

NYC Students Pay The Price For Cuomo’s Ambition

Gov. Cuomo says he has made up his mind about the millionaires tax – he’s against it. Saying that continued taxation would push New Yorkers to leave the state, he recently said nothing could make him support extending the millionaires tax.

Think about that for a minute. Do you really believe that residents and businesses are likely to leave the state because a tax that has been in place for two years is going to be continued? Have you noticed real-estate prices in lower Manhattan dropping precipitously as all the millionaires have fled since 2009, when the tax was first enacted? Of course not.

But a recent poll found that 72 percent of registered voters in New York support continuing the tax, so it’s clear the governor is indeed taking a stand that carries some political risk. Why would he do that? Why would he say, as he did, “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much”? The answer has to be that he is counting on the support of the super-rich, and he’s not going to push any policies that make them nervous. Support for what? Let’s just say that Cuomo is ambitious.

So, what does this have to do with education? Well, of course, without more than $4 billion in revenue in the next year from the millionaires tax, schools across the state, but especially in the city, are looking at huge cuts to education. I’m a public school teacher and have seen the effects of budget cuts firsthand. But it is as a parent that I am most outraged.

As the parent of a second-grader at a neighborhood public school in Brooklyn, I’ve seen huge changes in just the short time my daughter has been in school. When we toured the school the year before she began, there were 20-22 students in the kindergarten classes we saw (yes, we counted). When she began the next fall, there were 25 kids in her class. Last year, there were 27, and this year, 29. Her teachers, all of whom are dedicated and hard-working, appear exhausted every afternoon, and I feel like I’m watching them burn out before my eyes. And we are told there will be more cuts in January, and then again in June? It’s hard to fathom.

Cuomo’s response to parents who complain about budget cuts is to note that New York State spends too much on education for too little in the way of results anyway, so what’s wrong with cutting the funding? In his State of the State address this year, he noted that New York is “number one in spending but 34 in terms of results.”

There are a few reasons this argument is nonsense. First of all, as Education Week analyzed, when you adjust for the demographics of the student population as well as regional costs, New York actually comes in fourth in overall spending and second in outcomes — not first and 34th. New York has a much higher percentage of students who live in poverty and students with special needs than the national average, and those students tend to score lower on standardized tests and receive extra federal funding. So raw numbers regarding their scores and amount spent per pupil will make New York look both underperforming and overspending, but those numbers are misleading.

More important, however, is that the New York State’s spending average is brought way up by the wealthier districts, some of which spend upwards of $40,000 per pupil. The Byram Hills School District, where Cuomo sends his daughters to school, spends about $6,000 per year more than New York City on each student.

And here’s the kicker. How is Byram Hills dealing with the cuts to education certain to result from Cuomo’s decision to cut taxes on the super-rich? The district is raising more revenue through local property taxes. In fact, wealthier school districts around the state are opting out of the current law capping property tax raises at 2 percent a year. The Westchester supervisor in the County town of Bedford (which includes the Byram Hills school district), said, “We should be able to dictate our own financial future,” explaining why the county voted itself a waiver from the cap.

In Bedford, the average home value is almost $1 million dollars, and the average individual income is about $280,000 a year. In other words, Bedford has just voted to continue a version of the current millionaires tax in order to support its school system, which is already paying $6,000 per year more than New York City for each student. So far, there has been no exodus from Bedford reported in the media.

Watching the success of Occupy Wall Street in recent weeks, it occurred to my wife and me that ordinary people — just parents of a kid in public school — can organize and push back. We’re not able to camp out in Zuccotti Park for the next few weeks, but we can let the governor know what we think of his plan, and we have persuaded others to join us. Today, Election Day, we’ll be in front of the governor’s New York City office (from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at 40th Street and 3rd Avenue). We’re bringing our kids. We’ll be making some noise and engaging in some street theater (selling cupcakes to make up the shortfall — at a dollar apiece, we only need to sell 1.4 billion!). We need to convince the governor that his political future depends on the success of the state he is running, not the campaign contributions of the top 1 percent.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.