Funding Public Schools for the Public Good
We will preface this blogpost, although such warning is not necessary, by saying that a very big part of our job at The Community Alliance -- and, might we add, as community activists, as a whole -- is to arouse the public by use of any and all available stimuli. We cannot stick our arms through your monitor, grabbing you by the neck and shaking you up and down. Nor can we route electrons through cyberspace so as to give you an electric shock through the DELETE button (although, rest assured that we are working on it! :-).
What we can do is present ideas and opinions, including those that may incite reactions from head-scratching to indignation. [Bloating, nausea, dizziness and a mild chaffing sensation upon blurting out the words "Smart Growth" may also occur. Ask your local legislator if The Community Alliance is right for you before reading further.]
Fact is, we need to stir the pot, rock the boat, and light that candle under your butt -- not from time to time, but almost every time -- so we can get off of square one on the critical issues that impact upon our community.
This said, no issue could possibly be more compelling -- or potentially controversial -- than the funding of our public schools. This is particularly so when we consider whether tax dollars (public money) should be used to finance, in whole or in part, private education.
Whether direct funding by the State (i.e., for transportation, textbooks, computers and school nurses) or indirect incentives (i.e., vouchers), the debate rages on as to whether public money should be used to pay for private schools.
This is not a discussion of whether tax dollars can be used to fund various aspects of private education. The courts have already established this precedent. Nor is this yet another diatribe on the separation of Church and State (many if not most private schools being parochial or religious in nature). Put succinctly, the only issue at hand here is whether public money should be spent to promote or further a private school education.
In a perfect world, where we could simply print off money at the mint at will, why not? You want to send your child to Our Lady of Perpetual Motion on the Upper East Side or Yeshiva Yenim Velt in Boro Park? No problem. Here's a check. Have a blast.
Truth is, we do not have either unlimited funds or bottomless funding sources -- a fact supported by the school property tax burden now borne by Long Islanders -- and we must begin to allocate scarce public funds as if by triage.
Logically, this would dictate that, before one dime goes toward a private education, we fully fund -- 100 cents on the dollar -- our public school programs. If this means our private and parochial schools are short-changed in terms of tax-derived receipts (or get no change at all), so be it. We cannot continue to damn the public, with unfunded mandates and ever-escalating costs, while we feed the coffers of private institutions.
"Hey, but we pay taxes for the public schools, even though we send our children to private schools. Why should we pay for something we don't use, on the one hand, while also having to pay for something we want, on the other?"
Okay. Consider this. Your neighbor in Garden City pays taxes to operate and maintain public parks -- village parks, County parks, town parks, State parks -- although he rarely, if ever, uses these facilities. "I never go to a public park. I belong to a private club. Why should I pay twice?" Would anyone suggest that we, as taxpayers, should pick up the tab for our neighbor's dues at the Garden City Country Club, or that he should be absolved from paying that portion of taxes that goes to fund our public parks? Of course not. That would be utterly absurd.
We all pay taxes to maintain, operate and improve public facilities and to provide public programs and services, even those which we do not and may never use. This is part and parcel of what it means to be a member of a functioning, democratic society. This is our role as participants in community.
If we decide to give money to a private institution -- be it a country club, school, house of worship, fraternal organization or the Elks (and now we're gonna get an earful from all those irate Elks) -- it comes out of our own pockets, as private citizens, and not out of the public till, funded with our tax dollars.
Yes, we must, by law, provide a public education to all of our children. And well we should, for education is the backbone of a free society. [We will leave aside, for now, the ancillary argument that public education has served as the foundation of American society, many of the greatest minds and most illustrious benefactors of the preceding two centuries having come out of the public schools, both secondary and collegiate.]
We may not even reach the question of whether we should use public money to pay for private schools, for the simple truth is, if public education is to survive in our country, let alone thrive, we can no longer afford to publicly fund private schools.
Take transportation costs, as just one of myriad obligatory expenses that burden the budgets of many of Long Island's school districts. In some instances, transportation expense -- particularly burdensome given the high cost of fuel -- is the largest single non-instructional item in the budget.
At present, school districts in New York are required to pay for the transportation of students who live within the district to private and parochial schools outside of the district (subject to mileage limitations). In West Hempstead (a district with 5 public schools), there is a potential pool of approximately 3600 K through 12 students. Nearly 2400 of these attend the district's public schools. Over 1200 students (yes, you read that right) are transported daily out of the district to 95* different private and parochial schools, some as far away as Brooklyn. The Village of Lawrence has the highest cost for out of district transportation of any school district in New York. [And we all know what a disaster the Lawrence Public Schools have become, year after year of austerity budget.] The school district with the second highest cost for out of district transportation? West Hempstead.
*Stats on the number of "out of district" schools serviced varied from 95 to 120, depending on which West Hempstead school board trustee this blogger spoke with.
Out of a total budget of $45,467,052 (itself astronomical), West Hempstead allocates $3,586,735, or nearly 8% of the entire 2005-06 budget, to transportation. Out of this total transportation cost, some $2,798,917, or upwards of 78% of that nearly 3.6 million dollars, goes toward out of district transportation to private schools. That's a lot of greenbacks (read as, "your tax dollars")!
In addition to transportation, costs for textbooks, computers, and even salaries for school nurses in the private schools are all borne by the taxpayer. It is not unusual to see parochial school students brandishing spanking new textbooks and accessing the Internet (maybe even reading this blog) on the latest generation of CPU, all paid for with tax dollars. Meanwhile, public school students, in the same grade, use out-of-date, fraying texts and previously written-in workbooks, struggling with outmoded computers, because, when all is said and done, there is no money left in the pot to buy, update, or even repair. [And where is the equity in busing a district student to a private school in Brooklyn while another district student, attending the district's public school but residing beyond the arbitrary "transportation eligible" distance from that school (but still within the district), must seek other means of transportation?]
Perhaps there should be a law that requires all parents to send their children to public schools in grades K-12. No more of this "fright-flight" -- that our public schools fail our children whereas our private schools excel. If the public schools are broken (and, admittedly, there is room for much improvement on many fronts), compulsory public education will force us to address these issues and to find a fix, rather than to cut and run.
Compulsory public education ridiculous? No more than are mandatory inoculations against Mumps, Measles and Rubella.
The idea -- or, as this blogger sees it, the ideal -- of compulsory public education is not on the horizon. As it now stands, and as it would appear the public demands, private and parochial schools remain a viable (and, in some communities, where the public schools have been all but abandoned, a necessary) alternative.
We can argue "brain-drain," the inherent inequality of "separate but equal," and a whole laundry list of why we should choose public schools over private schools. We will leave the pros and cons to the posters and guest bloggers.
If you want to send your child to a private or parochial school, or to have your child home-schooled, for whatever reason, this remains your option. It should also remain, barring extenuating circumstances (i.e., disability requiring special schooling), your exclusive responsibility to foot the bill, in its entirety, for such private education.
A free and democratic society -- one that thrives upon educational distinction -- requires public schools of excellence, with programs and initiatives fully and equitably funded through tax dollars. Private is just that, "private" -- an expense that should not and, under present economic conditions, cannot continue to be borne by the taxpayer.
Think otherwise? Great! E-mail your name and home address, and we'll send you the bills for our membership in the Cherry Valley Country Club, the kids' tuition at NYU and tab for summer camp, and the invoice for annual dues at the house(s) of worship of our choice.
We have to start thinking, and seriously so, about where our tax dollars are being spent, before we can begin to shave even a penny off of that bloated property tax.
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Coming Soon: A review of the compelling tale of a well hung Gay jury, Twelve Ang Lee Men. [And you thought we had lost our sense of humor. :-)]