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For supporters of public education, it’s time to go to the ramparts

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A signature of the Cuomo administration has been his iron-fisted control of state government. In his State of the State address two weeks ago, and in his budget presentation this week, he has shown that he deeply believes that he alone has the right vision for New York — and he’ll do just about anything to force that vision into law, and suppress anyone working at the state level from expressing any other view.

Unfortunately, Andrew Cuomo’s vision of many things may not match the vision, or the needs, of the majority of his constituents. He has come under severe criticism, for example, over the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act, which he bullied through the legislature last year. And he now is getting heat — although not enough of it — for his view of what our public schools need.

Both the State of the State and the budget address were mute on the issue of operating aid for public schools. Not once did the words “gap elimination adjustment” leak from the governor’s lips, and his mention of operating aid, now called foundation aid, was so fleeting in his budget address that it would not be surprising if you did not catch it.

Instead, the governor said the things he thought people should hear: he said he would “fix” the Common Core curriculum (while blaming its flaws on the Board of Regents), he said he would pour money into universal, full-day prekindergarten programs and promised to offer voters a $2 billion bond referendum that would support advances in technology in the classroom.

The bond issue had to be particularly galling to public school administrators across the state. If it passes, it will let them install smart boards and computers in the classrooms that still are manned by teachers — if there are any.

Because the severe penalties imposed on districts by the gap elimination adjustment, and the atrophy of foundation aid, has made all but the most wealthy districts cut and cut and cut. Limited by the property tax cap and punished by the net reduction in state aid from the barely moving aid formula and the onerous gap penalty, districts have had to engage in wholesale slashing of staff and programs. Over three years, north country districts have laid off hundreds of employees, the majority of them teachers, and have cut programs and increased class sizes just to stay even with the board. You would be hard pressed to find a single educator in the north country, and perhaps in the whole state, who believes public education hasn’t been deeply wounded by the governor’s policies on education.

Now he would impose universal full-day pre-k on districts that have had to eliminate both elective and required programs, hiked class sizes to ineffective teaching levels and dropped the things — art, drama, music, sports — that have been saving graces for students for decades. He has decided this in an apparent vacuum; many districts’ officials are saying that they don’t have the space or the resources to instantly provide this program. In the same breath they are adding “because we can’t even provide physics” or languages or name your own missing subject.

Of all the property taxes I have ever paid, I have resented school taxes the least. School was good to me. It provided me with the elementary knowledge I needed to survive, but more importantly, it provided me with a lifelong desire to learn. People who know me call me a ferocious autodidact, but that desire to learn everything that comes before me was instilled in a very small, rural public school.

Now, those schools are under assault by the state that should be their biggest supporters. And given the governor’s actions of the past month, it appears unlikely that attack will end any time soon. We should all go to the ramparts to defend our schools, to defend our students, to make education work once again in this state.

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