As the New York State Senate convenes for its spring session, let’s take a moment to reflect on how momentous — and historic — an occasion this is.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers, was named the Senate majority leader. She is the first woman — and an African-American at that — to lead the Senate. Stewart-Cousins, 68, was first elected to the Senate in 2006, and led the Democratic caucus for six years when it was in the minority.
“I have to say that I stand here in awe — in awe of everything that has happened,” Stewart-Cousins told her Senate colleagues on Jan. 9, when she was sworn in.
Indeed, the start of the Senate session was awe-inspiring. Here’s why:
• Kevin Thomas, a Democrat from Levittown, became the state’s first Indian-American senator.
• Anna Kaplan, a Democrat from Great Neck, is the first Iranian-American senator.
• Monica Martinez, a Democrat from Suffolk County, is the first Salvadoran-American senator.
• John Liu, a Democrat from Queens, is the first Chinese-American senator.
• Robert Jackson, a Democrat from Manhattan, is the first Muslim senator.
• Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from the Hudson Valley, is the first Costa Rican-American senator.
• Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, Democrats from Queens and Brooklyn, respectively, are the first Colombian-American senators.
Never before has the Senate been as diverse. It now better represents the racial and ethic makeup of our state. That’s good for New York, because a greater variety of voices should, we hope, lead to fairer, more inclusive policy-making.
And the state’s challenges are many. According to the Center for American Progress, New York ranks 50th — that is, dead last — in income disparity, the gap between rich and poor. “Gap” is the wrong word. It’s truly a chasm here.
The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute recently found that the top 1 percent of New Yorkers earned an average of $2.2 million in 2015, while the average of the other 99 percent was $49,617 — a ratio of 44.4 to 1. Across the country, the figures were $1.32 million and $50,107, a 26.3-to-1 ratio. In New York, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area was closest to the national average, at $1.33 million compared with $47,724 — 27.8 to 1.
In our state, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans have disproportionately high rates of poverty compared with whites and Asian-Americans. About 11 percent of whites and 16 percent of Asians fall below the federal poverty line, which is $24,600 in annual income for a family of four. Meanwhile, 24.2 percent of Latinos, 23.4 percent of Native Americans and 21.1 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress.
In 2016, New York had an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent — 24th in the nation, according to a recent study released by the center. And our high school graduation rate was 79.2 percent — 38th in the nation. That was a particularly distressing statistic, given that New York spends the most on public education of any state, an average of $22,366 per child in 2016.
The thing is, public education dollars aren’t spent equally in New York, and nowhere is the disparity between rich and poor school districts more apparent than on Long Island. Jericho, a white/Asian community that is among the highest-spending school systems on the Island, allocated $34,892 per child in 2016. Elmont, a primarily African-American/Hispanic community, was among the lowest-spending districts, at $20,441 per child.
Hempstead, an African-American/Hispanic community, had a graduation rate of just 39 percent in 2017, according to the State Education Department. Next door in affluent, mostly white Garden City, the rate was 98 percent that year, with 85 percent of students receiving Regents Diplomas with Advanced Designation.
It is clear that New York’s economic inequality is caused, at least in part, by an unequal education system, with local school districts funding their programs largely through property taxes. With greater financial resources, wealthier districts can spend more to provide a richer educational experience, leading to better outcomes.
The Senate, with its new multi-racial profile, should examine the state’s system of funding education. Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, has previously proposed regional districts to reduce the sheer number of school systems — 124 on Long Island alone. That would cut administrative costs, saving taxpayer dollars, while potentially bringing greater fairness to our educational system.
Now, it seems, would be the right time to revisit that plan.