Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Irrational, Arbitrary or Capricious"

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity began a thirteen-year march toward a fair and equitable school funding formula. The march for fairness culminated in a lawsuit which wended its way through the NYS court system a la Bleak House, ending with a Court of Appeals reaffirmation of an earlier decision, and a victory for CFE. The legislation that came out of this victory was meant to increase annual state aid to public schools and to design a new formula for foundation aid based on need.

Well, that was 2007, and you'd think that would have been the end of it, but then came 2008 and the Great Recession. And in 2009, the aid was frozen and then cut, with school funding seized to cover other state needs. You'd think that a court-ordered payment would have to be made, but as Assemblywoman Nolan told a group of us recently, "Well, we didn't have the money, so what are you gonna do." As the then-head of CFE, Michael Rebell, has stated, all of CFE's work since 1993 was thus erased by the legislature. And despite the fact that aid has slowly been added back in, most districts are not funded up to 2007 levels even now.

So Rebell, who is really the hero of this Dickensian tale, worked over the past year or so with a group of parents and others to initiate a whole new lawsuit. New Yorkers for Students' Educational Rights (NYSER) seek to have $1.6 billion immediately restored to school coffers, property tax caps rescinded, and a fair formula reimposed.

Again, the case is wending its way through the courts. And yesterday, NYSER won step one with the State Supreme Court, which refused to dismiss the case as requested by the state. Justice Manuel Mendez, ruling for the plantiffs, pretty much wrote their argument for them, stating that the mechanisms the state has used to keep from paying up "could potentially be found irrational, arbitrary or capricious and capable of preventing a sound basic education."

The state now has twenty days in which to appeal the ruling or go to trial. Rebell expects the state to delay the case as long as possible.

Rebell will be one of the speakers at an event I'm moderating Monday night. It should be enlightening and entertaining, if moderately depressing. I encourage anyone local to attend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Flash from the Past

For Cornell’s sesquicentennial, each college gets a month in which to supply the community with an event of the college’s choosing. Arts & Sciences started things off in November with a three-day symposium on The Vietnam War at Cornell. I attended the teach-in, which featured former students and professors reminiscing about their experiences plus an advanced screening of a film-in-progress about the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969.

Professor Kramnick was careful to invite former SDSers as well as men who had fought in Vietnam, for a balanced perspective. The most affecting five minutes were from a one-time professor, who wept when he remembered a favorite student’s death in-country—a student who only enlisted because he was convinced that to argue more persuasively for peace, he needed to experience war.

Although I was younger than most of the people in the room, much of the two-and-a-half hour event resonated with me. There was Dave Burak '67 (below), who enlisted Mark and me and Winnie Rossiter and others into Junior SDS. One participant recalled the Barton Hall “America Is Hard to Find” event in 1970, when the sudden, unexpected, and daring appearance of Dan Berrigan lit up the room before he was spirited away into the underground again, disguised by friends from Bread & Puppet Theater. I was there. Paul was there. Our families were there.

The footage from the documentary reminded me of things I’d long forgotten—the long meetings of faculty at Bailey Hall as the university tried to decide what to do about the appearance of arms on campus, the way in which town and gown divided and the children of professors were forced to take sides on issues that were certainly over our heads at the time.

This was a time that would soon blow up families I knew—the Rossiters and the Perkinses, among others—not to mention the families of boys who went away and never came back, or moved to Canada, or went away and came back changed. Yes, I was alive for JFK’s assassination, but it’s the antiwar era that left its mark on me. Olivia’s generation has nothing comparable. Take away the draft, and war is rendered hazy and impersonal.

It was interesting to be in a roomful of people who shared the same points of reference.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Polonius Was Right

There's nothing much to add to the chorus of mea culpas and finger pointing coming from Democrats about our hideous trouncing on November 4. Democrats lost for lots of reasons, only some of which were related to outside money. The most obvious reason has to do with failing to stand for anything, much less for Democratic principles, and running away from the administration's successes while failing to call them on their failures. The remarkable cave-in of NY's Working Families Party, which lost any credibility it had left when it made a toothless deal with Cuomo, is just one example of progressives making deals with the devil to avoid confrontation.

Campaigns should be about confrontation. Polonius told Laertes, "Beware/Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,/Bear ’t that th' oppos├Ęd may beware of thee." If you're not willing to stand up for yourself and define yourself, you allow your opponent to define you. That happened time and time again this year. "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man." If you're pretending to be centrist, or working-class, or a teen mom, or something that you really are not, your campaign won't pass the smell test, and the electorate will feel used. If you leave little room between yourself and your opponent because you are afraid to come out as [anti-fracking/pro-choice/pro-ACA/anti-gun/fill-in-the-blank], you take away any reason to vote for you. And if you campaign on trivia rather than on something big like income inequality, your campaign loses meaning and fades into the noise.

I wonder whether the cautious Clintons, whose stumping this year was more useless than not, will learn something from all this. I know that 2016 will be a very different year for lots of reasons, only some of which will be related to outside money. Let's hope one of the differences is the way Democrats talk about themselves and their ideals.