We Need Robust Relief – Not Bankruptcy – for New York’s Students and Teachers By Mondaire Jones

This April, it became clear that states and localities were going to be facing tremendous budget shortfalls that would force them to lay off hundreds of thousands of public employees. My home state of New York, for example, projects a $13.3 billion budget shortfall. But rather than propose constructive solutions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he would support letting states declare bankruptcy. Such a cruel position could only come from someone far removed from working people – ignorant to the devastating impacts that gutting vital public services like transit systems and local health departments would have on people throughout the country.

But nowhere would these cuts hit harder than in our public school systems.

As a proud product of public schools, the fight for education equity is deeply personal for me. I grew up in Section 8 housing and on food stamps, and my young, single mother still had to work multiple jobs for us to get by. The quality public education I received in the East Ramapo Central School District was instrumental in helping me transcend my humble beginnings and make it to Stanford University, work in the Obama administration, and graduate Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, that quality public education no longer exists in East Ramapo, and in too many other districts across America.

I have been a lifelong advocate of public education, and I am deeply concerned with what New York’s budget shortfall would mean for students in Rockland and Westchester Counties, who I am running to represent in Congress. As a candidate for Congress in New York’s 17th District, I believe Congress must step in to close the gaping hole in our state and local budgets.

Due to plummeting tax revenues and major COVID-related costs, states and localities are projecting a $500 billion hole in their budgets this year. At least $300 billion is needed to shore up public education. Governor Cuomo has warned that if Congress doesn’t provide the relief, state aid to New York schools could be cut as much as 20%, which would eliminate over 28,000 teaching positions, as well as thousands of other school support roles like counselors and librarians.

These cuts will hit low-income districts the hardest, since they rely on state aid for the bulk of their revenues. Peekskill Public Schools, which relies on state aid for nearly half of its budget, would lose nearly $9 million under this scenario.

This fiscal crisis arrives at a time when schools, especially schools predominantly serving low-income students and students of color, will be working to meet extraordinary demands. Many students, including the 550,000 kids in New York who cannot engage in remote learning because they don’t have internet access at home, will need substantial academic remediation. Children grieving the loss of a loved one, or whose families were suddenly pulled into poverty, will need counseling. LGBTQ+ youth, many of whom are at home with hostile family members, will need support. We know black and Hispanic communities are experiencing the highest COVID-19 death rates, the most catastrophic job losses, and the least connectivity to the internet at home. Places like Peekskill, where students of color make up 90% of the school district’s enrollment, will need substantially more resources this year to support their students to recover from the pandemic, not a $9 million cut.

This does not account for all of the added challenges and costs associated with meeting the CDC’s health guidelines for reopening. School districts in Rockland and Westchester Counties will need to spend millions of dollars to purchase personal protective equipment for students and staff, as well as cleaning supplies to sanitize classrooms, hallways, and buses. Districts will have to hire additional personnel to check students’ temperatures as they arrive at school and care for students who fall ill. To meet social distancing requirements, districts will need to dramatically reduce class sizes and school bus capacities, which would most likely mean multiple shifts of learning, as well as a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. These measures would add substantial costs, beyond those of a regular school year, for supplies, transportation, staffing, and technology.

A request to direct $500 billion in federal stabilization aid to states and localities has the bipartisan support of the nation’s 50 governors. Over 100 members of Congress, as well as major education stakeholders like the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals, and the School Superintendents Association, have all called for $300 billion of that relief to be directed toward education.

Congress absolutely must honor the request of our state governments and educators. If we have enough money to bail out corporations, we must provide for the education of our most vulnerable children. And we need fighters in Congress to make that a national priority.

I will be that fighter. I know what it’s like to need a quality public education in order to transcend poverty. I know what it’s like to come from a family where nobody before me had even graduated college. I know what’s at stake for our district’s most marginalized students this year, and years to come, and I will fight harder than any other candidate in my race to make sure every student and teacher has what they need to thrive.

New York’s primary elections are tomorrow: Tuesday, June 23rd; if you live in New York, check your County Board of Elections website to see where you can cast your ballot. And wherever you live, let your Congressional representatives know that you support aid to state and local governments. The future of our country depends on it.