BHM Round Table Calls Minority Communities to Action
Attendee suggests public education financing be identified as an “investment,” not an “expenditure”

In its Tenth Anniversary Black History Month Celebration, Elmont Online and Highlighting Success, Inc. presented a round table discussion that centered on hot-button issues uppermost on the minds of minority community residents. The current economic climate, coupled with attitudes among public officials in Mineola, Hauppauge, Albany and Washington, D.C., have brought a readiness to look for answers to persistent challenges and traditional policies.

The round table panel at the 2013 Black History Month Celebration engaged in an open discussion of three significant issues: Public Education Financing, Immigration and Health Policy. It was moderated by Dr. Marsha Darling, Director and Professor, the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies at Adelphi University.

Panelists included: Rabia A. Aziz, CEO, Long Island Minority AIDS Coalition, Inc.; Frederick Brewington, community advocate and lawyer with expertise in civil rights litigation; Dr. Robert R. Dillon, Ed.D., Executive Director, R.E.F.I.T. (Reform Educational Financing Inequities Today); Lucia Gomez-Jemenez, Executive Director, LaFuente, and Martin Melkonian, Professor of Economics, Hofstra University.

Calling round table attendees “civil society stakeholders,” moderator Dr. Darling invited each panelist to speak to the issues at hand before opening the discussion to the audience.

Panelists define their focus
With his 36 years’ experience in education and advocacy, Dr. Robert Dillon acknowledged that school districts are suffering from a lack of adequate funding to provide a sound basic education. He said studies show that as a result of diminished state aid, school districts have reduced their programs, especially before-and-after school and extra-curricular activities, reduced elective programs at high schools, and increased class sizes. He noted that the results of these actions are “more glaring for the children in high tax, low wealth districts” — Elmont being among them. Additionally, he pointed out that students in these districts do not often have opportunities for supplemental experiences provided by the home. Therefore, said Dillon, “An education, emotional and social gap continues to grow.” He added that while the state has increased dollars going to districts, those dollars don’t buy the same as they did in the past, and therefore, financial responsibility is falling further on the taxpayer.

“This is an issue of poverty,” declared Dillon. Public education is on a cliff, he said. “Are we going to go in the area of achievement and programs that we can be proud of, or are we moving, as I see, if there is no change, into the arena of custodial care where we will be providing babysitting service as opposed to rigorous academic instructional programs that we need to sustain our communities so that we can continue to grow.”

Professor Martin Melkonian said the country is facing a fiscal cliff with a huge and growing federal debt. He sees Congress focusing on the debt itself, rather than the economy. “Unless we recover into a full employment type economy, we are not going to be able to finance our needs,” remarked Melkonian. He noted, too, that the large tax cuts of recent years have gone largely to corporations without effectively trickling down to most people. “What is needed is a direct employment program” Melkonian remarked, suggesting a targeted figure of roughly 12 million new jobs. If this is accomplished, he said, “Government would have the funds to assist states and localities with their education needs.”

Rabia Aziz pointed out that African Americans have one of the highest disparities in healthcare, and she cautioned that under the Affordable Care Act, healthcare is moving to a home care model where one case manager will handle all of the issues within a household. She recalled that in 1998 advocates had created an emergency medical designation for HIV on Long Island, and identified 5,000 individuals who were HIV positive. The designation brought eligibility for federal funding. However, she said, today “the messaging has changed and we no longer hear or talk about HIV. Most individuals receive their HIV status when they go into the Emergency Room.” She added that African-American women have the highest rate of HIV in Nassau County. “What we need within our communities again,” stated Aziz, “is to have that conversation about HIV.”

Speaking to the issue of immigration, Lucia Gomez-Jemenez said the good news is that there is bipartisan discussion on immigration reform, and legislation is expected to be resolved and signed by the President in August. She is hopeful that hurdles will be overcome and immigration reform passes, and looks forward to a real pathway to citizenship. “Latino Americas are passing citizenship tests and registering to vote every day in the metropolitan area,” she noted, and added that 11 million new citizens could be logged on in the next two decades. “Immigration reform will allow individuals to not only become legal citizens,” said Gomez, “but also active citizens who fully participate in democracy in this country.”

Fred Brewington boldly stated that the issues under discussion are “interrelated and go to some of the systemic problems we have as a county, state and nation.” Often, he said: If there is a healthcare issue in a household, it affects kids going to school; and in reality, we’ve decided to spend more per capita to imprison our young people than educate them. Educators are not invited to the table when the talk is about issues of immigration, and while attention has been focused on AIDS-HIV in Africa, there are still many people within our own communities that are suffering from HIV-AIDS. At this point, our systems are starting to break down.

Contrary to conventional thought, Brewington suggested that rather than thinking “outside the box,” communities should plan from within. He said that “the box” is the process in which people are engaged. “It’s time for us to really start to question the way we’ve done things in the past and start to break molds,” he remarked, “because we have learned as we are growing and changing in society that there are greater needs that are coming about.”

“The failure to deal with policies upfront…is going to be the detriment to us all,” remarked Brewington. He outlined a course that challenges people to wrestle with the under cast system where it is okay not to educate young African-Americans, particularly males, in communities that are underserved to begin with, and fund them on the backhand where they are not going to be educated but incarcerated. “It is important not to fool ourselves by thinking that we can do the same things over and over again and solve the problems that are facing us in this 21st century,” he commented. “You need to attack public education from the front view and not make it more difficult for people to get it. Let’s not think outside the box, let’s recreate from within.”

Changing the language of education
In the Question-and-Answer session, one speaker recognized that society is at a crossroads in public education, and must decide where it wants to be. He noted the language in which education is framed in China, saying that that nation is “investing” billions of dollars in their education system. “The word they use is ‘investing,’” he said, adding that China “talks about education as the most important commodity in the economy” and focuses on how it can “invest in an educated workforce that could compete in a global technology based economy.” In contrast, the speaker said that here, our leaders don’t use the word invest, instead they use the word “expenditure,” and we are now hearing about “educational insolvency” where we are going to see school districts literally going under. He suggested that when programs and staff are cut and insolvency occurs, “you’re talking about a divestiture of opportunity.”

Brewington replied, “You hit the nail right on the head. We don’t talk about competition worldwide. In our schools, we’re still talking about getting a job in New York, but everybody else is talking about the world being the marketplace. The world is changing…changing ideas, changing language, changing thoughts. Change is going to take us where we need to go, including in public education.”

Cuts in youth programs and services
Hempstead Town Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby asked the panel to address two issues: the recent “finding” of $25 million in County funds and the divergence of public funds to support charter schools. She noted her district’s deep reductions in funds to youth and after-school programs. Another speaker commented that the County moved the money into the general fund to resolve its own fiscal problems. He asked if people can lobby the current government to get the money back into the system.

In reply, Brewington said lobbying may never get that money back. He added that the officials we elect are supposed to be accountable to us, and suggested that perhaps there was an abuse of public trust. He added, “Some of those same people are running for office again. If we are fool to put them back in there, shame on us. We have to make our public officials more accountable.”

Prof. Melkonian stated that the fundamental problem is that priorities are not focused on our children. Trillions of dollars are allocated to the military budget. Taxpayers’ dollars also went to bail out the banks and large organizations and not to our children, many of whom are facing large loans when graduating from college.

“Nonprofits struggle every day to make up shortfalls of money that should come from government,” said Aziz. After cuts were made in HIV prevention services, the 20-year infrastructure was decimated. This included cut in prevention services for children in schools. She cited a cost of $100 for prevention services versus $600 for care for people who are HIV positive in Nassau County. The effects are compounded, and she claims government and nonprofits are now dealing with follow-up issues like recidivism, diabetes and other diseases that are going to cost more in the long run.

Public education vs. charter schools
In addition to some private dollars, Dr. Dillon says charter schools are funded by deducting the expenditure for the child’s education from the public school system and redirecting those funds to the charter school. “Some believe that there’s a major profit to be made in privatizing the charter schools,” he said. Most of the charter schools are in urban or high poverty areas on the rational that there is dissatisfaction with public schools and that the charter school will provide a better, safer education. Dillon adds, “That speaks to the responsibility we have to provide not only a sound basic education but a place that is safe for all students.”

“At no time have people who are sitting on school boards felt more helpless with responsibilities being removed from them and sent to the state,” Dillon added. “We move in a direction where people on boards of education who intercede on your behalf and represent the largest investment in your community have been stripped of their rights. If this continues, public education will have a different face.”

Gomez suggests school districts that don’t change to address different populations fuel the growth of charter schools, which often address specific problems, for example, a lack of English proficiency. However, she asked, why segregate these children? Charters do not address the basic needs for participation. Communities that do not speak the language are not being engaged, and she added, “Politicians have to move with the times or move out of the way.”

Gomez further commented that labor unions have not been engaged with the community, and should be meeting more with community members. “The debate IS political,” she said, “and people have to be aware and deal with the issues open eyed.”

Regarding safety in schools, Dillon said that at some point in a child’s life, the family has to take responsibility for the child’s actions. “It’s a cooperative effort to provide the environment the child needs to succeed.” He urged parents to join their PTAs, work with their school districts and administrators.

Dr. Dillon was also asked to give his thoughts on the teacher evaluation system. He replied that the issue is driven by the race to the top, which drives money into New York City. Under the plan, teachers have to follow a rubric—no room for creativity. “It’s ludicrous and has been perpetuated by the powers that be, the Chancellor and Governor, and a group of people who have no hands-on experience. These actions are sucking resources out of the districts.”

Serving immigrant populations
Former Dr. Carter G. Woodson Award winner Elsy Mecklembourg-Guibert expressed concern for the pockets of immigrants that did not want to be counted during the 2010 census. Where will the money come from to service these populations?

Brewington replied that each year legislatures develop a budget, but often voters miss this important part of the process. He urged residents to pay attention to budget formulations, and note the funding that will be allocated for things that affect them and other community members.

“Immigrants are not the only ones that are fearful of government and don’t want to be counted,” commented Gomez. She assured Ms. Guibert that every year the American Community Survey captures a snapshot of various populations from municipalities, and offers estimates that are often more accurate than the census. Their data collection is part of the annual budget of the Census Bureau.

Call to action
“Schools reflect the community,” states Dillon, who urged parents to be involved with their children. “A neighborhood is only as good as the values they set.”

Brewington says he “challenges everyone to make the change, not wait for the change, but to be the change. The United States is the wealthiest county in world, yet we can’t deal with funding education and healthcare. Think about how we can influence our political leadership.”

“I believe in We the People,” stated Aziz. “We the people are inclusive of one community. Politicians don’t decide for us, we decide for us. In the 60s, we defined who we were, where we were and what we called ourselves. The issues that were put before us when we came to these shores are the same things being put before us today.” In regard to voter suppression and the elections, she cautioned people to listen to the talk about changing the Electoral College, a part of the democratic process. She asked people to be aware of gerrymandering, and said that if they are not vigilant on that decision, they are not going to be able to elect the people who speak for them in legislative bodies. “We talk about citizen power,” added Aziz. “We mobilize the community to have a community voice. A voiceless community will continue to be led by other people. You should be defining who you are; you should be defining your school system; you should be defining your healthcare, your housing units, your climate. Change starts here on the community level. You have to develop an action plan, and if not, we will be having the same conversation.”

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