“What do we want?” rang the shouts of children and parents in the hallways of the New York state capitol.
“Money!” the crowd responded.
“When do we want it?”
“If we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!”
The crowd had been gathered by a coalition of education and criminal-justice reform groups calling on the New York legislature to “fund schools, not jails.” State senators Jessica Ramos and Robert Jackson, both part of a wave of new legislators elected this cycle on the strength of left and progressive energy, joined the protest. Jackson at one point took over and led the call, with both hands as if conducting, bringing the responses to a crescendo: “SHUT IT DOWN!”
For education advocates, it was particularly heartening to have Jackson there in his new role. In 1993, he was one of a group of parents who sued the state for funding New York City’s schools so dismally that they were unable to offer children a “sound basic education.” The case was known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). A decade later, the Court of Appeals ruled in parents’ favor.
A court-appointed panel then decreed that in order to meet its minimum obligations, the state needed to provide $5.6 billion in basic operating funds to New York City schools. A resistant state legislature finally acted in 2007, ordering $7 billion in need-based aid for poor districts statewide. But after the 2008 financial crisis, a series of governors beholden to the capitalist class — first David Paterson then Andrew Cuomo — cut school funding back to pre-2007 levels. Parents have been fighting ever since to get the state to deliver on the promises of the CFE.
According to advocates, the state still owes poor New York school districts $4.1 billion, and it’s time to pay up. (For his part, consummate charmer Governor Cuomo recently dismissed the CFE as a “ghost from the past.”)
This has been a struggle of more than two decades. But Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), the group leading the charge on CFE, believes that if the state’s poorest children are ever going to win equity, now is the time. “I’m always cautiously optimistic,” she says. “Doing this for twenty years you’re just never sure. But I am extremely optimistic. It was so beautiful to be in that space and see those folks who I’ve seen championing this issue for so many years, walking the halls of Albany.”
There are a host of reasons it’s been so hard to get New York’s kids the education they deserve. The rich, of course, don’t want to pay more taxes to fund it. The political class views these children and their communities with racist indifference. And Cuomo and many of his funders have long held that the solution for “underperforming” schools is not to fund, but to privatize them. Austerity can be a tactic toward accomplishing this goal: starve public schools and make them fail, so charters seem like the only solution.
This moment, then, for New York, will test the power of the current left electoral upsurge. Since the new progressive legislators were sworn in earlier this month, progressives have been winning important victories with dizzying speed: a state DREAM Act, as well as bills protecting trans and reproductive rights, and making it easier to vote. But the establishment does not bend so easily when it comes to taking money from rich people and giving it to poor people.
Los Angeles’s public schools, by contrast, lack progressive elected defenders, but just won big with the help of a movement. Despite a school board owned and paid for by the billionaire class and dedicated to its agenda — indeed, some hedge funders actually serve on the board — Los Angeles teachers this month went on strike and won not just a pay raise without health-care givebacks, but significant investment in public schools, including nurses, librarians, school counselors, and smaller class sizes, as well as checks on the expansion of charters. It was a deeply organized effort with a lot of public support; tens of thousands of parents and community members rallied in solidarity with the teachers every day.
It’s unclear whether we have the grass-roots forces in New York to defeat the billionaires on such billion-dollar matters. But many of our new senators are well-suited to deliver for the state’s poor children, and their presence in Albany is one of many signs that parents are building some of the political power they need.
Like many parents engaged in the fight to defend and improve public education, Ansari came to political organizing through the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at her kids’ school. Twenty years ago, she was a stay-at-home mom of seven (an eighth child was born later) in East Flatbush, near the border of Brownsville, Brooklyn. One of her daughters’ teachers encouraged her to run for a PTA office. Ansari was reluctant, not seeing herself as a leader. Still, she needed a project that would take her outside of her domestic life. “I was just lost in mommyhood and wifehood,” she recalls. Ansari rose to the challenge of getting parents to show up to PTA meetings.
She has been organizing ever since, eventually for AQE, and can point to significant victories. Over the past three years, the organization has won $3.6 billion in school funding, including $300 million for community schools (which serve poor communities with social supports and resources like health care for kids and their families), and a $650 million increase in funding for pre-kindergarten. AQE was also one of the organizations that led the successful fight against vouchers in New York State.
“Yes, we’ve had victories and I think it’s important to acknowledge them,” Ansari reflects. “Having said that, there’s something about crumbs, and twelve years of losing a generation of children who haven’t had access to billions of dollars.” She adds, “It’s not okay that children have to constantly wait. And it’s because they’re black and brown and because they’re poor.”
For Ansari, the long fight has been agonizing at times. “I always knew in my head that our children were not a priority,” she says. “But last year I felt it in my body. I literally was sick for two days. It was gut wrenching to feel that my children — and communities that look like mine — are not valued. And to feel that is a pain I wouldn’t wish on anybody. At that moment I felt, I can’t do this.” Of Governor Cuomo she says, “To know that someone despises or hates your children, or community … Then they spew rhetoric that they care, but the policies tell you that they don’t, that’s — hard to swallow. I say this all the time: To do this work is social, emotional, and psychological abuse.”
To finally win, Ansari and her colleagues know that they need all the allies they can find. The lively protest in Albany this month was a first-time collaboration between education equity groups like AQE and groups like Free New York, fighting the injustices of mass incarceration. “For the system to continue to work,” says Ansari, “we need to be in silos. So when we come together, it shakes up the system in a really powerful way.”
In the same spirit, Ansari on a recent weekend addressed the (sadly misnamed) NYC Women’s Unity Rally, an exuberant, multiracial gathering, leading the crowd of thousands in a fist-waving call: “Governor Cuomo, fund our schools!”
“The ‘Blue Wave’ means nothing,” Ansari said two days later, “if the policies don’t reflect what the people want. And that’s what I’m waiting to see happen.”