high rolling

Also on the ballot: a divisive gambling proposal to fund schools

At left, state Senator Liz Krueger with New York State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long (credit: Andrew Goldston); At right, UFT President Michael Mulgrew with Assemblyman Keith Wright and Heather Briccetti, CEO of the New York State Business Council (in red).
At left, state Senator Liz Krueger with New York State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long (credit: Andrew Goldston); At right, UFT President Michael Mulgrew with Assemblyman Keith Wright and Heather Briccetti, CEO of the New York State Business Council (in red).

A gambling proposal up for public approval Tuesday is either a “godsend” for New York City schools, or a “bill of goods” filled with false promises. It just depends on whom you’re talking to.

The proposed amendment to the state constitution would allow the construction of up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos in New York State beyond those that already operate on American Indian reservations. Much of the tax revenue from the casinos would be funneled into city schools, which state budget officials have estimated could see as much as $94 million in annual revenue.

“This will be a godsend and gift for our children in our educational system,” Keith Wright, a state assemblyman and co-chair of the state’s Democratic party, said last week.

But others are lobbying against the proposal, cautioning that the promised dividends to schools might well be exaggerated.

The $94 million figure came from the State Budget Office, which based its estimate on the construction of four new casino resorts. It would represent a little more than 1 percent of the $8.5 billion in school aid that city schools are receiving from the state this year.

The ballot measure has pitted traditional allies against one another and lined up unlikely coalitions. Labor unions and business groups have joined Wright in support, saying the casinos, whose construction would be limited to upstate regions at first, can boost economic and job growth in parts of the state in decline. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and both New York City mayoral candidates are on board with the measure.

The United Federation of Teachers jumped on board too, giving $250,000 to a pro-casino group to raise awareness for the issue ahead of the vote.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew held a press conference at union headquarters last week, where he said the extra funding would be helpful at a time when it’s needed the most. Annual school aid increases, he said, have not kept pace with new requirements from the state to adopt Common Core standards and more complicated teacher evaluations.

“The schools need the revenue,” Mulgrew said. “The schools absolutely need the revenue.”

But some organized opposition exists. Not far away from the UFT event last Thursday, a group was at City Hall making their case for why the amendment should be voted down. They included anti-gambling conservative groups and liberal Democrats who oppose gambling on moral grounds; fear a rise in the influence of casino lobbying; and worry that loopholes that could allow lawmakers to slip out of some of the early promises.

“There will be no requirement that the money be spent on the education,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan. “That could be changed tomorrow.”

Krueger said that she would have been more likely to support the amendment if it mandated that the gambling tax revenues went exclusively to education, as the rules associated with the New York State lottery mandate. She said she was also concerned that lawmakers would find ways to use the new gambling tax revenue to replace other state educating funding streams, rather than add to them, which is what critics say has happened with the lottery in recent years.

“It is very easy to do a bait and switch the way this whole thing has been set up,” Krueger said.

But Mulgrew said that he was confident that the new revenue would prevent any future reductions in school aid. “They can’t say we’re going to cut education with this additional revenue,” he said.

Krueger, who is a frequent ally of Mulgrew, said she wants more state money earmarked for education. She just doesn’t think the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot is the best way to make that happen.

“I just think that some people don’t understand that they’re being sold a bill of goods,” she said.

In New York City, polls show that voters generally support the amendment, but they say they wouldn’t want a casino developed in any of the five boroughs.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.