Lawsuit Is About Fair Aid, Not More Aid

The recent Maisto vs. NYS decision in favor of the state is yet another blow to disenfranchised small city students. Maisto, a Jamestown student, along with 80 parents and students from eight small city school districts including Jamestown, contended that their quality of education was compromised due to the State not following its own laws in fairly funding small city schools. The judge’s ruling disavowed the notion that students in poverty require more resources than those students who are not AND that the life of a child in poverty is not an issue for schools, like Jamestown, to address in order to provide a fair public education.

This is patently false.

It is a well-researched fact that students in poverty face many more barriers to learning to read and write than other students. Researcher and author, Eric Jensen, describes these challenges in Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Jensen identifies factors such as chronic stress, health and safety issues, malnutrition, environmental hazards and insufficient healthcare, which may compromise a child’s immune system resulting in diminished ability to concentrate, learn and behave appropriately.

It is also a well-researched fact that students cannot learn if they are cognitively wrestling with trauma they may experience at home. We estimate that in the Jamestown schools there are at least 500 students dealing with two or more traumas affecting their lives every day. The factors might be simple such as not sleeping well because they were too cold as the heat was turned off in their house or being worried that they won’t have their basic needs met like enough food to eat over the weekend. Or, they may be more traumatic such as fear for their own safety or their families’ safety or worry that circumstances such as divorce or substance misuse in the household will affect their families and home life. These children come to school and sit quietly in their math class while the teacher explains fractions. During the lesson, they are naturally trying to sort out the traumatic event that just occurred at home. The next day’s lesson will be about decimals, but these students will still be cognitively wrestling with emotional pain and not thinking or learning about the lesson, setting their skill level behind their classmates. Sadly, this happens in our district every day. Home life impacts student achievement disproportionately to students in poverty and to rule otherwise is simply ignoring biological truisms.

The New York State Constitution requires all children in the state receive a free and appropriate public education. I think we can all agree that at a minimum, the term “public education” should mean that our children are able to read and write. Over 70% of Jamestown’s students live in poverty. It is proven that children in poverty have much larger barriers in their journey to read and write. Evidence also suggests that these barriers adversely alter brain development required for reading. Yet today, we know how to teach these children to become successful readers and writers. It requires reading and literacy specialists. Hiring these specialists requires money.

Jamestown has a school budget of approximately $86 million dollars. If Jamestown were to raise the property tax levy 2%, it would generate an estimated $293,000. If a like-sized school in Erie or Monroe County raises their tax levy 2%, it would raise an estimated $1.2 million dollars. Small city schools that have a large population of students in poverty depend on state aid to provide the reading teachers and literacy specialists that our students need to learn how to read and write.

The Maisto case is not about increasing taxes. It is about fairly distributing taxes already collected to meet a constitutional mandate. Last year, New York state provided $26.03 billion dollars in aid to schools. Maisto vs. New York is about the state fairly distributing this aid so that schools like Jamestown can hire the instructional specialists we need to guarantee all our students their most basic right to a public education.

Dr. Bret Apthorpe is superintendent of the Jamestown Public Schools District.