The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue

Education for the 99 Percent

Photo by Zachary Garlitos.

For more than a month, hundreds of people have been sleeping outdoors on the cement in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, decrying the fact that our country is run for the benefit of the richest 1 percent, at the expense of the other 99 percent. Occupy Wall Street—with its language, its energy, and its contagious indignation toward our nation’s most shameless resource hogs—may be just what our schools need.

While the 1 percent enjoys its skyrocketing wealth, and politicians anticipate its needs as attentively as the waiters at Per Se, a large swath of the 99 percent attends public schools that are in huge trouble.

Budget cuts continue to hit these schools hard. In a survey of school superintendents in New York State, conducted by the Council of School Superintendents (NYS COSS), 75 percent said their district was in worse financial shape than it was a year ago. Districts have been cutting their workforces by an average of nearly 5 percent. It’s the third year of draconian cuts, so there’s no fat to trim from the districts, not that there ever was. Particularly devastating is the loss of school employees that support students and families—guidance counselors, parent coordinators, family workers, tutors—as these workers so often make the difference between a warm, functional school and a failure factory.

It is not hard to see a direct connection between budget cuts and the experience in the classroom, either: 63 percent of districts surveyed by NYS COSS have increased class sizes. Most parents don’t realize that class sizes can increase even after the school year has begun. At my son’s school, where kindergarten classes are up to 25, 10 new students were just admitted from the wait list, two months into the year, to offset budget cuts—clearly those children must go somewhere, and class sizes will have to go up. 

Countless studies have identified small class size as critical to decent education, and as one of the few reforms that actually close the achievement gap for poor kids. But honestly, who needs studies? It’s pretty obvious. Ask a teacher if she can engage a class of 30, or even, in some horrific cases in Brooklyn this year, 36, as productively as a class of 19. Ask a parent if a teacher with 35 other students can give her child the attention he needs or even—at minimum—protect him from bullies. Teachers in such situations deserve kudos if they even remember the children’s names.

New York City’s classes are among the largest in the state. In 2003, New York’s highest court ruled that NYC students were being unconstitutionally deprived of an adequate education as a result of class sizes. A state law passed in 2007 required New York City to reduce its class sizes—down to 20 in kindergarten through third grade—but now they’re the largest they’ve been in 11 years, according to data compiled by Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

Things are likely to get even worse for our schools without decisive policy changes: 89 percent of the superintendents in the NYS COSS survey said they were worried because their district was drawing on reserves to meet operating expenses.

There are many reasons for the dismal condition of our state budget, which has put the schools in such an untenable spot. But one clear solution is redistributive: Bring back the millionaire tax. If that tax is allowed to expire this December, the schools will lose—on top of everything they’ve already lost—a staggering $1.4 billion in additional funding. Why would we want children in Brooklyn to endure crowded classrooms and academic failure just so some hedge fund guy can buy a second plane?

“Report Card” does not blame this sorry state of affairs entirely on the richest 1 percent of New Yorkers, any more than it holds small children wholly responsible for their troublesome behavior in a restaurant. Like noisy tots finger-painting with condiments, the super-rich must have limits set upon them by civilized society. Instead, our politicians coddle them. Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly argued that if we tax them they will leave the state even though a study of the impact of New Jersey’s millionaire tax, released last June by sociologists at Princeton and Stanford, found it simply wasn’t true. Similar studies elsewhere have reached the same conclusion, but “Report Card” cannot resist a parochial question: If the rich are not sufficiently annoyed by high taxes to leave New Jersey, why in the world would they ever leave New York?

Even more disgracefully, Cuomo recently compared his own opposition to the millionaire tax to his father Mario Cuomo’s—also unpopular—opposition to the death penalty. The younger Cuomo said:

My father was governor of this state. He was against the death penalty. Everyone in the state wanted the death penalty—everyone. It was near 80 percent. And he was the governor of the state and he said he wasn’t going to sign it … so the fact that everyone wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much. I represent the people, their opinion matters, but I’m not going to go back and forth with the political winds.

The elder Cuomo’s stance, whether one agrees or disagrees, was courageous and considered. Here’s what he wrote this month in a Daily News op-ed prompted by the pending execution of Troy Davis:

[T]he death penalty is wrong because it lowers us all; it is a surrender to the worst that is in us; it uses a power—the official power to kill by execution—that has never elevated a society, never brought back a life, never inspired anything but hate.

And it has killed many innocent people.
Readers won’t be surprised that the younger Cuomo cannot muster comparable eloquence regarding the millionaire tax, though there’s no doubting the sincerity of his dedication to the rich and powerful.

Gradually, parents have been joining Occupy Wall Street. In October, many gathered for a family sleepover in Zuccotti Park, organized by a group called Parents for Occupy Wall Street, which is growing so fast the organizers cannot keep up with all the people who want to join in and help out. This writer attended with her son, as did family folk-rock singer Dan Zanes, who led us in serenading Wall Street with “Pay Me My Money Down” (“Pay Me or Go to Jail!”), though full disclosure impels me to admit that we did not spend the night.

Many more parents are, inspired by the commitment of the young people camping in the park for so many weeks, finding our own ways to confront the 1 percent and its pathetic lackeys. Parents are gathering to protest at Cuomo’s New York City offices on Election Day, in protest of the governor’s continued insistence on protecting the hedge fund set instead of our kids. Brooklyn public school parents have taken the lead on this action.

Not even that bastion of the one percent, the Panel on Educational Policy (for more on the PEP, see this past September’s Report Card, “Our Fake School Board”) has been safe from OWS. As this column went to press, teachers, parents, children, and activists took over a PEP meeting, using “the people’s mic”—an OWS practice in which the group repeats what the speaker says, to make up for the fact that microphones are not permitted in Zuccotti Park—to drive Chancellor Walcott from the stage. The incident was the launch of Occupy DOE, whose next planned action was a People’s General Assembly on the steps of Tweed, to create a People’s Agenda for Our Schools.

Don’t get me wrong: Occupy Wall Street is a diverse group, and not everyone sleeping in the park would even agree on the need to pressure the state to deliver better services like education. But that may not matter. The courage of the Occupy Wall Street protesters—and their astute naming of the problem—is slowly inspiring the rest of us to stand up to the 1 percent.

It’s about time. 


Liza Featherstone

LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a journalist who lives in Clinton Hill. Her son attends the Brooklyn New School (P.S. 146).


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues