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Op-Ed: The Backstory -- Why Newark's High School Students Walked Out

The Newark Student Union explains why five hundred of its members walked out of class and marched on the Assembly Budget Hearing at Rutgers Law.

We are the Newark Student Union. We are an organization made by and for students, and we unite students from all Newark’s high schools. For too long our voices have been silenced in the decision-making processes affecting our schools. We are now coming together to stand up for our rights.

On Tuesday, over five hundred of us walked out of class and marched en masse to Rutgers Law School, where the Assembly Budget Hearing was taking public testimony on Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget.

We decided to conduct a walkout after serious thought and debate. Ultimately, we decided that a public demonstration and a direct appeal to legislators was the best way to express how deeply Christie’s budget fails Newark students.

This year, Newark Public Schools face $57 million in cuts that will force some of our schools to cut their budgets as much as 20 percent. The worst part of these draconian cuts is that they would be entirely avoidable if the governor simply followed the formula codified in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Instead, for the second year in a row, he proposes lowering per-pupil funding for low-income students and English language learners and changing the way attendance is calculated to deprive some of the state’s poorest districts of millions in funding.

If the budget were fully funded Newark would see $51 million in state aid, nearly enough to close the NPS budget gap. Instead, Superintendent Cami Anderson is closing the gap with cuts that will impact our constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education.

We’ve been told time and again that there is no money to fund Newark schools, but this is simply not true. The problem is not lack of funding but of misplaced priorities. In 2010, the surcharge on New Jersey’s richest 1% was allowed to expire, costing the state $1 billion in revenue that year alone. At the same time, the governor cut state aid to public schools by $1.1 billion, according to the Education Law Center. Restoring state income tax rates on the very wealthiest to what they were in 2009 would give New Jersey resources vital to finally undo the damage of Christie’s budget cuts.

But instead of funding our schools, Trenton has gone on to pass a series of wasteful business tax cuts that divert billions in revenue to profitable corporations like Prudential, Panasonic, and Citigroup that have not delivered on the job-creation this administration promised. If Prudential can receive $210 million for a new office building in downtown Newark, why can’t West Side High School get the $3 million it’s owed under the law to educate its students?

This is a problem that extends well beyond Newark, and even beyond urban communities like Camden and Trenton. Christie has underfunded all New Jersey schools -- urban and suburban -- by a total of $3.6 billion since taking office. If the Legislature makes the mistake of passing this budget we will have taken $5 billion for urban and suburban schools across the state over the past four years.

We are not asking just for our slice of the pie. We want every school district in the state to receive the increase it is owed under the law so that sports teams and clubs can be reinstated, arts and language programs can be restored, and the property tax burden on low-income and middleclass families can be relieved!

We stand in solidarity with students and communities around the state in asking the Legislature to take a stand against Christie’s policies of putting corporations and the wealthy ahead of New Jersey students, and present an alternative vision that once again makes education a priority. We urged the Assembly Budget Committee to do so on Tuesday and we’re looking to Newark legislators on the budget committees, like Assemblyman Albert Coutinho and Sen. Theresa Ruiz, to stand strong for Newark’s students during this year’s budget debate.

Until they do, our work is not done. Yesterday’s action was an inspiring and empowering act for Newark students.

But it’s just the start.

The Newark Student Union is an organization made by and for students of Newark Public Schools. Founded in 2011, it works to make the voices of students heard and fights for a quality public education for all.

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