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Moral Mondays come to New York State

New York Teacher
UFT President Michael Mulgrew at the podium.
El-Wise Noisette
UFT President Michael Mulgrew at the podium.

The Moral Mondays movement came to New York State on Jan. 12 as about 1,000 students, parents, advocates and union leaders from New York City and across the state converged on the state Capitol to demand fair and equitable funding for public schools.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten were among those who spoke at the event that was headlined by the Rev. William Barber II, a North Carolina minister who heads his state’s NAACP and its Moral Monday protests against legislative attacks on public education and civil rights.

Barber told the sign-waving crowd that was packed onto an ornate indoor staircase at the Capitol that the need to ensure high-quality, diverse and well-funded public schools transcends politics.

“Public education is not a left issue or a right issue,” he said. “Public education is a deeply moral issue, a deeply constitutional issue.”

Barber noted that New York’s high court in 2005 ordered the state to spend billions more dollars each year to ensure that the state’s schoolchildren receive the “sound, basic education” promised in the state constitution. The state has failed to abide by that order.

“The court said this state is guilty of not providing equitable funding,” Barber said. “And has been guilty for nine years.”

Barber noted that a person who fails to pay a parking fine for nine years would be arrested.

“Somebody needs to arrest the attention of this governor,” he quipped.

Barber decried the state’s huge school-funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, one of the largest in the nation. He also pointed out that New York’s schools are more racially segregated than those in North Carolina.

He called for an end to attacks on teachers and cautioned against “using your political power, governor, to settle scores just because you are mad because somebody criticized you.”

The first Moral Monday, timed to take place as the new legislative session gets underway, kicked off what is expected to be an all-out battle in Albany this year for fair funding and genuine support for public schools, particularly those in the neediest districts.

Mulgrew asked the crowd to consider, “Is it right that not every child has access to everything they need?”

“No!” they roared in response.

“Can we do better?” Mulgrew continued.

“Yes!” the crowd responded.

The rally in Albany came as a new report shows that funding inequities between rich and poor districts across the state have reached record levels since Gov. Cuomo took office in 2011. Overall, schools in poorer districts spent $8,733 per pupil less than those from wealthier ones in 2012, according to the study.

Many Democratic state senators and Assembly members joined the event to show their support of fair and equitable funding for public schools. Among them was Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, the chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Education. As she welcomed the crowd on the first day of the legislative session, she said, “This is the best opening day I’ve had in the 30 years I’ve been” in the state Legislature.

Barber ended his speech by exhorting the diverse crowd of parents, students and advocates to keep united in their fight for education.

“Stay together,” he said. “This state is your state.”