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Jeff Bryant aptly describes the battle for control of public education in New York City. A group of billionaires–actually, nine of them–have formed an organization called “Families for Excellent Schools.” The name, like all of those invented by the corporate reformers, is intended to confuse the public into thinking that the group consists of families who are eager to improve all schools or families who are on the waiting list for a charter school. In fact, the “families” that contribute to this group have one goal: to increase the number of charter schools, without regard to collateral damage to the public schools that enroll the other 1 million children in public schools.
The billionaires, as Bryant shows, have opposed Mayor de Blasio’s programs to expand universal pre-kindergarten, to support struggling schools instead of closing them, to provide more reading specialists and counselors, and to make more AP classes available. They have used their considerable clout to demand more charters and to oppose equitable funding for public schools. A lawsuit that ended years ago called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity directed the state to pay the city billions more to fund public schools, but Governor Cuomo has ignored the CFE decision and pretends that charter schools are THE answer.
Understand that de Blasio’s desire to ramp up funding for new education programs comes at a time when powerful forces who control state education policy in New York state are convinced public schools need to make do with less. As a recent article in The Nation explains, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “has banked his gubernatorial legacy” on refusing to adequately fund his state’s public schools.
Reporter George Joseph traces Cuomo’s stubborn refusal to abide a court-ordered overhaul of the Empire State’s education finances to a “coalition” of extremely wealthy people – principally, only nine individuals – who back an organization, Families for Excellent Schools, and operate a Super PAC that has smashed almost all lobbying records in Albany, the state capital, and influenced elections with massive campaign donations.
Joseph finds that FES – combined with New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, another powerful organization financed by the same individuals – now largely shapes education policy in the state, a policy that strongly opposes the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools.
“The state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion, according to a recent study” Joseph points out. “Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.”
The state’s stingy attitude toward education funding flies in the face of recent research studies showing funding levels for education have real consequences for students. Even people who are politically conservative recognize this.
The billionaires say that it is not necessary to “throw money” at the public schools, but meanwhile they don’t blink at spending $40,000 a year for their own child’s education in private schools that offer all the things that poor kids don’t have: small classes, the arts, beautiful facilities, up-to-date technology, no standardized testing, and no teacher evaluation based on test scores.
Instead, they fight doggedly for charter schools, which skim the most motivated students and families from the public schools, further harming them.
Is there a billionaire in the United States who wants to help all children, not just some children? Is there one who will join the fight against privatization of public education?