Greetings, New York City high school graduates of the Class of 2005!
As you walk forward into the future, I urge you not to forget the public school system that sends you forth! When I think of that system, I often pause to reflect on two images displayed on the front steps of the stately building in Lower Manhattan that houses our city’s Department of Education. There are electronic outlines of two children who endlessly walk forward—but never actually get anywhere!
This, I am sorry to say, is a metaphor for the school system from which you take leave. It is so bad that two Junes ago, New York State’s highest court determined that, as a group, you have been denied a sound basic education. The court, ruling on a lawsuit filed during the June you graduated from kindergarten, found that many of you weren’t being given enough education to vote intelligently.
Some of you have gotten a terrific education. But many haven’t, and the reason, the court ruled, is money. We have more important concerns than your education, such as lowering our taxes.
I hope that you will revisit your school years to understand just how badly your rights have been violated. A good place to start would be a landmark court ruling that Justice Leland DeGrasse released on January 10, 2001, still the best analysis of the city’s public schools. He showed, point by point, how lack of money was the root of so many of the problems you’ve experienced.
Did you lose entire years of your education to incompetent teachers? Did a good teacher or administrator leave your school to work in the suburbs? The problem was money, DeGrasse found.
It still is. The school system showed this month that if it throws resources at a particular task—say, raising fourth- or fifth-graders’ scores on a reading test—it can succeed. But there’s not enough money to really reform the system. There is enough, however, to produce achievements that will be used in a mayor’s campaign ads.
The last time an incumbent mayor ran for re-election, your fourth-grade reading scores made headlines. Then mayor Rudolph Giuliani was so proud of you that within two weeks he rushed out an ad bragging about himself. “For decades, bureaucrats and career politicians did nothing to stop the abuse in our schools,” he said in a TV ad quoted in the Times. “But not anymore. We gave the chancellor the power to set higher standards. Now, student reading scores are up in every district, the highest one-year increase in the past decade.”
Your reward? Throughout your schooling, government has fought to avoid spending the money needed for you to get the education you are entitled to by law. Had the state responded to the DeGrasse ruling right away, when you were in junior high, your high schools would have been better.
But Governor George Pataki fought it and is now nearly a year past the court’s deadline to provide fair funding. I guess it was reassuring when the governor declared during an election campaign at the start of your sophomore year that you were entitled to more than an eighth-grade education.
The Republican governor’s opponent in that election, Democrat H. Carl McCall, former head of the New York City public schools, tried to make an issue of Pataki’s decision to fight the court ruling. But the union that represents your teachers endorsed Pataki, shooting down McCall’s attempt to push for school aid. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget for the year starting July 1 promises money to lower class sizes and create more small schools, playgrounds, pools, and science labs—things you should have had. But almost all of the money is supposed to come from the state through the court ruling it refuses to comply with.
The Republican mayor, meanwhile, says the city won’t contribute to the billions of dollars the court wants to add to the city school system—even though the court ruled that the city spends much less on education than other communities around the state. Bloomberg does have money for a tax cut for homeowners, whom he needs in order to be re-elected. He has money to build a football stadium. He just doesn’t have money, according to the city budget chief’s affidavit, to build enough schools.
But even though you’ve been officially shortchanged by the state and city in your schooling, I believe that you will find a way to succeed, to fill in the gaps in your education where needed. It’s often said on these occasions that you are the future. And you are! But before you stride into the future, there is something that must be done first: an apology for the past.