Robert Jackson taking fight over school funding to the Senate
11/28/2018 05:02 AM EST
ALBANY — Robert Jackson was the president of Community School Board 6 in Manhattan in 1993, and in that position, he sued the state over its funding for New York City schools. That suit would lead to the creation of a statewide funding formula in 2007 aimed at boosting the neediest districts.
Now Jackson is preparing to attack the state for dodging that funding structure, this time as a state senator. He won a primary over Sen. Marisol Alcantara in September and easily won the general election to become one of several incoming freshmen who campaigned on the funding issue.
He’s planning to argue that the state is neglecting students by ignoring the funding formula on the books and using alternate or additional funding measures instead. The Foundation Aid formula is at least $3.5 billion behind in payments. The school his own children attended in Washington Heights is owed at least $1 million a year that could go to teachers aides, social workers and updated technology, he said.
“It’s not like we’re asking for additional money,” Jackson said. “We’re asking for what’s due them under the formula. That’s what the fight is about. No one can say to me that the children receive everything they’re entitled to, because we all know they are not. “
With Democrats holding a 40-23 majority when the Senate reconvenes in January, Jackson “hopes and expects” Majority Leader-elect Andrea Stewart Cousins to prioritize a full phase in of Foundation Aid.
“If not, I’m going to raise my voice loud and clear, because our children can’t wait,” he said.
He has little patience for those who who say the state, facing a shortfall of about $4 billion with health care and pension costs rising, can't afford to fully fund Foundation Aid.
“My response very clearly is that the money is already there,” Jackson said. “When you’re looking at budget of $168 billion, it’s about priorities.”
It’s an old issue that saw new life this year, first from education activist and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and later candidates such Senators-elect Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated members of the defunct Independent Democratic Conference.
Others, however, are somewhat wary of committing to fully funding Foundation Aid.
“I think there is a tremendous sense that districts are entitled to more, deserve more, in order to provide the kind of education that was required by the court,” said Sen. Shelley Mayer of Westchester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, who could be next in line to lead it. “It’s going to be our fight to get there.”
When asked if that included a full phase-in of nearly $4 billion in Foundation Aid that her new colleagues are asking for, Mayer said, “One step at a time.”
“Many of us believe our public schools have been short-changed for a long time, and that’s to the detriment of the kids, and I expect in the budget process that will be a priority for many of us,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), the soon-to-be second in command of the new majority, in response to a question about fully phasing in the formula.
It was Jackson who, in the early ‘90s, persuaded attorney Michael Rebell to sue the state on the issue of education adequacy — which refers to wording in the state constitution — rather the than equity — which looks at equal protection and had been turned down previously by high courts.
“He would not take no for an answer, he said, 'Come on, you’re a smart lawyer, you’ve gotta come up with an angle,'” Rebell said of Jackson. “When he believes in something he just does not give up.”
As a freshman, Jackson, a former member of the New York City Council, won't have a great deal of clout. But he's banking on the fact that he has decades of experience in education, beginning as a parent activist when his now 43-year-old daughter first entered P.S./I.S. 187 in 1980. He served on the school board for 15 years, 12 years on the City Council Education Committee, eight years as chair and eight years each on the Council’s budget negotiation team and Finance Committee.
He thinks that experience and advocacy qualify him to be chair of the Senate's Education Committee, while he also noted that he famously marched 150 milesfrom New York City to Albany to raise awareness about school funding. “If that doesn't qualify me to chair the Education Committee, I don’t know what does," he said. Chances of that happening are slim, to say the least.
Jackson, whose three children are now 43, 38 and 32, said he is claiming the city’s 1.1 million public school children as his own, (“I’m their father fighting for them,” he said) and plans to visit schools in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers “in order to see what true needs are.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he needs to know if districts are spending their money efficiently and proportionately among schools before the state spends even more than its already enormous allotment of $22,366 per student per year.
“My message to Andrew Cuomo is ‘Andrew, I want to make sure that our children in New York state get the same type of education that your children received,'" Jackson said. “'I want them to go through the same type of colleges your children have gone to.' That’s what we have to do for all New Yorkers.”
Cuomo’s daughters Cara and Mariah graduated from Harvard and Brown, respectively. His youngest, Michaela, attends Brown.
Cuomo's office responded by saying that the governor has increased school aid 36 percent since 2012, (which excludes a massive chop his first year in office — the number would be closer to 29 percent during his full tenure) and that 72 percent of the $1 billion increase this year went to high-needs schools.
"We welcome the opportunity to continue our progress towards greater equity and increased funding, as well as more transparency on where the funds go," Cuomo spokesperson Jason Conwall said.
“I’m asking him to spend the resources so our children will get a sound basic education, basically what the highest court agreed to," Jackson said. "That’s what this fight is about. It’s not about me, it’s about our children.