In the end, we reap what we sow

My parents impressed upon me the value of education. I went to public schools. For a short while, I went to a private school on scholarship. Then I went to Hunter College in the Bronx. I could look around me and see a microcosm of the city: whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. We all had one thing in common — there wasn’t much money in our families. The marvel of the City University of New York where I went and the State University where my twin brother went was that they were either free or very close to free.

If this country is going to argue that we have equality of opportunity, it is not sufficient for taxpayers to finance primary and secondary schools. College and graduate school will make the difference for our kids. When they receive a higher education, they will get better paying jobs. They will be able to pay for tutoring and all those things that mostly Caucasian middle-class parents can do for their kids.

If, on the other hand, New York starts to use its institutions of higher learning as business appendages and we brag that only the best and the brightest can get into these schools, the legacy of racism and poverty will continue unabated as all the advantaged children take the places in our schools. Freedom of opportunity will become a failed concept. In the past, we have tried to figure out how to accommodate everyone. It was sometimes called “open enrollment” and the pushback was immense. “Raising standards” was a rallying cry and as tuition crept up and access became more and more difficult, we devolved to the point where it became harder and harder for a kid from a disadvantaged home to get an education.

If our public schools fail; if our kids can’t manage the English language or basic mathematics, it won’t matter if most can get into college because they wouldn’t have been able to manage it. This is why our community colleges are so important though even in these wonderful institutions, “standards” and “access” can be stumbling blocks. As a college teacher of over forty years, I can tell you that the particularly gratifying students who come back to see you are those who would not have made it if their state or city university’s tender loving care had not been available.

Now Governor Andrew Cuomo, in an attempt to reenergize the upstate economy, has called for our state universities to become pollen for the business bees. He is offering tax breaks for those who work in these new tax haven complexes. I can’t blame the guy — if he wants to be president, he’s got to demonstrate that he can put upstate New York back to work.

Recently we saw the president of the United States touring upstate rural regions and carrying the educational torch. He is looking for ways to hold institutions of higher learning responsible. How much are they charging? Are they delivering what our students need? Are they overpromising to deliver what we all know some of them can’t do?

The fighting Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, took Donald Trump to court for doing just that — promising to deliver something he couldn’t. I was delighted to see that blowhard taken to task. If we are to turn things around, we need to make some crucial decisions. We have to give everyone a fighting chance. If we want great public universities like Hunter and City and SUNY, meritocracies which will continue to produce students who will win Nobel prizes, then we have to also make sure that we can give all of our kids a fighting chance. When the governor of New York puts his mind to making that happen as well as to attracting businesses, I will give him a deserved, “Well done.” In the end, we reap what we sow.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/4/13

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