Syracuse March for Education Justice
Despite the wind-chill and brutal cold, crowds of activists marched from Hannover Square, in downtown Syracuse, to the New York State Office Building on Washington Street. At noon on March 4th, 2017, students, teachers, parents, children, and people of all backgrounds united to protect public education. Equipped with hand-written signs and a sense of urgency, the crowds demanded fair and fully funded public schools, protection of educational rights for all students, an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, and increased access to affordable early care and learning opportunities for toddlers. In conjunction with the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), and dozens of other organizations, ACTS organized the Syracuse People’s March for Education Justice. With only twelve days of planning, Syracuse fielded activists in solidarity with those already marching across the state. From Manhattan to Buffalo, Albany to Rochester, thousands expressed concern for the future of their youth. In response to the recent New York State educational budget proposal, which would deny billions more dollars from our public schools, Syracusans echoed the chant “Not on our watch!”
“It’s not our kids that are failing, but our public officials that are failing our kids,” said Amalia Skandalis, a Syracuse City School District (SCSD) art teacher and holder of two education Master degrees. As an expert in early childhood education, she understands the relevancy of this People’s Education March.
“It’s critical that we have a conversation now around quality public education,” she insisted. Many low-income and diverse communities have been barred from this conversation year after year. Even before the new federal administration reprioritized education models, and before New York State’s 2017-18 public school budget proposal, inner-city schools were starved of needed resources.
Over the past ten years, New York State has withheld 4.3 billion dollars of foundation funding intended for the poorest schools in the state. Such funding may have fostered expanded curriculums, afterschool programming, arts, music, sports, special education, and counseling services for at-risk youth. Instead, it is conceivable to see these programs cut entirely from school budgets. Inner-city schools across New York State will struggle to resist staff lay-offs. As current trends continue, more inner-city schools will cut programming and students will underperform, unless champions of public education guide the conversation. Aneesah Evans, chair of the ACTS Community Violence and Youth Task Force and Coordinator of the ACTS Youth Council, answered this call when she resolved to gather activists on March 4th.
“I had just come home from the ACTS Youth Council meeting in February, where we had asked the students to think about possible topics to address,” explained Evans, “quality of education was a major concern for the SCSD students.”
As she had an evening scroll through Facebook, she discovered the People’s Education Justice March of New York City. She researched the other rallies planned for Rochester and Albany, but ultimately decided Syracuse would have one of its own. Emails within ACTS turned to outreach with Billy Easton, the Executive Director of AQE in Albany.
Leadership Spotlight Video: Aneesah Evans
(Filmed last year, but still introduces you to Aneesah Evans, CV & Y Task Force Chair and Coordinator of the ACTS Youth Council
“I got really excited. How cool would it be if I helped put together a march in Syracuse?” She asked. The question gained momentum and she asked members of the Syracuse community, “Would you support it? Help plan it? Show up and show out?”
Two weeks later, she donned her winter coat with over a hundred others and the entire ACTS Youth Council. She marveled at the difference she had made. The People’s March had attracted high-profile attendees and organizations. Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, SCSD Superintendent Jaime Alicea, the Syracuse Teacher’s Union, five SCSD school board members, and representatives from Mayor Stephanie Miner’s office all attended. The protestors also welcomed several guest speakers to Hannover Square, including Megan Root (President of the Syracuse Teachers Association) and Common Councilor Susan Boyle. A student speaker from ITC Syracuse City High school helped rally his listeners behind the mission of both ACTS and AQE.
AQE is a public education advocacy organization, consisting of coalitions spanning New York State. AQE is dedicated to ensuring “full and fair” funding for public schools, protection of student rights, cessation of privatizing public schools, and ending our State’s overreliance on “high-stakes” testing. Statewide marches organized by AQE, and jointly with ACTS in Syracuse, reflected these diverse missions with a collective vision for a brighter future. According to some experts, private and “School Choice” options prioritized by the federal and the New York State governments endanger this future. Expansion of these privatized institutions arrives expressly at the expense of public education funding. A fear exists that many schools will be engulfed by private options
unaffordable for low-income families.
The end result, of course, leaves no real choice for the poor.
Without real choice, the school-to-prison pipeline and academic performance of students worsens. Quality education is a cornerstone of community health, so we helped conduct the March 4th event in defense of our communities. To dismantle structural racism and poverty in Syracuse, all students must have access to affordable education.
“[My] education budget is the highest in history…some advocacy groups that’s what they do, they just argue it’s not enough,” said Cuomo in an article for PIX11, a news organization based in New York City. However, the concern for many parents and teachers is not only with dollar amounts. To them, the destination of those dollars and the systems of their distribution are equally important details.
New York State’s public school funding scheme operates on several unjust mechanisms. A school’s funding is driven principally by the wealth of its surrounding neighborhoods. This is well and good for affluent areas, but for poor inner-city districts it’s a path to suffering. While a complete reorganization of this system will be needed, this condition could be temporarily ameliorated with equitable and need-based government grants.
Currently, the process of grant acquisition is fierce competition between schools. Those schools with excellent test scores will receive extra funding, while those who struggle with performance are punished with lower funding. It is a truly paradoxical system. Schools with a disparity in student performance should receive our State’s assistance, not negligence. A school can never expect to improve its student performance by having its budget in a state of uncertainty. The current process is a bit like directing a fire hose
at a small barbeque fire, while throwing cups of water on a house conflagration. Or, perhaps more aptly, like giving healthcare to the healthy while leaving the sick uninsured. Syracuse neighborhoods caught in the “conflagration” are home to many immigrants, minorities, and refugees, who also experience concentrated poverty. In essence, New York State’s education system ensures a constant state of have and have-nots.
“Every single child in the Syracuse City School District deserves an excellent education in a nurturing environment. Unfortunately, our teachers and our leaders are forced to do way too much with far too few resources,” says Evans.
It is an ACTS desire to work closely with New York State on these pressing issues. However, to find solutions together we must first recognize the glaring problems with our current education system in New York State. The conclusion is clear: we need strong public schools.
“Our message to Governor Cuomo [and New York State] is don’t shortchange our future,” concluded Aneesah Evans in a comment to AQE, on behalf of many parents, teachers, and students.