Parents, unionists demand funding for NYC schools

NEW YORK — Celebrities Susan Sarandon and Cynthia Nixon joined more than a hundred parents, union leaders, education and community activists, and elected officials on the steps of City Hall Feb. 16 to call on Republican Gov. George Pataki to implement a court order requiring the state to increase funding to the city’s schools to over $5 billion per year. Pataki has refused to comply, saying he will appeal.

Speakers included teachers union President Randi Weingarten, whose first words were, “Are you all ready to go to jail?” Weingarten and dozens of others were arrested in Albany last spring, protesting the delay in implementation of a previous school funding order. She noted that eight months had passed since that action, saying, “Enough is enough. Don’t let it go back to the courts. Our kids can’t wait. Settle the case now!”

The Feb. 15 ruling by N.Y. Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse made the state legally obliged to provide the city’s schools with the additional yearly funding, and affirmed an earlier finding that another $9.2 billion for capital projects must be provided over the next five years.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, a longtime leader in the struggle to fund the schools, gave a militant, angry speech, saying, “Anyone who stands in the way of our children will be trampled on … enough rhetoric, enough talk. Millions of children around the state and in New York City are being damaged, and it’s damage that can’t be undone.”

The chant, “How long? Too long!” echoed through City Hall Park, alluding to years of illegal underfunding of the city’s schools. In 2003, after a 12-year legal battle, the state’s highest court ruled that New York’s education funding mechanism violated the constitution by failing to provide all children with a “sound basic education.” It ordered the state to increase its funding.

After the state failed to comply with the order, a court-appointed team of “special masters” came up with the figures now affirmed by Justice LeGrasse.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, summed up the crowd’s sentiment when he said, “These are our children and they are being cheated.”

Brian McLaughlin, president of New York’s Central Labor Council, described the gathering as “the broadest possible coalition,” and used a hockey metaphor: “We’ve been held, crosschecked, and slashed, and no one has gone to the penalty box yet.” He called on Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council members to speak out: “Let’s hear a sense of passion and outrage for the children they’re supposed to represent.”

Many other labor leaders and elected officials spoke or were present at the rally. All urged Pataki not to appeal the judge’s decision, and ridiculed him for saying he had “no idea” what the legal basis for his appeal would be.

Betsy Gotbaum, NYC’s public advocate, said, “Classrooms are seriously overcrowded, 59 percent of our kids don’t graduate on time, teachers are not being paid enough. We need the money. Do it now, governor!”

The rally launched a new web site, www.OurKidsCantWait.org, hosted by the Alliance for Quality Education, which has been fighting for school funding along with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The web site aims to send thousands of messages to Gov. Pataki and state legislators to pressure them to comply with the judge’s order.

emora@cpusa.org.