The right to a free postsecondary education has been a major part of the presidential debate. New York State should be at the forefront of this discussion, but we are way behind.
The New York Constitution’s education language was written in 1894, when an eighth-grade education was assumed to be adequate to get a job. This was also a time when the state passed a law that allowed communities to set up separate schools for children of African-American descent. (In 1900, the state passed another law requiring integrated schools.)
It was also a time when New York Grandee and future Nobel Prize winner Elihu Root was a major opponent of the unpopular concept of woman’s suffrage. In fact, from this distant era, it took until 1982 before the New York courts determined the Constitution required even a high school education.
In today’s world, where 65 percent of all jobs will soon require some form of postsecondary education and people change jobs every 4.6 years, New York’s citizens must have the right to more than a high school diploma.
Although Governor Cuomo has launched his Excelsior program for free tuition, “Less than 5 percent of current undergraduate students at the State and City University systems will be eligible for the scholarship, according to rough estimates present at the SUNY Board of Trustees” according to Politico. While the Excelsior program may be laudable, it is not a systemic solution to a massive and growing need for post-secondary education.
We need a new constitutional amendment on education to make New York the first state in the country that guarantees the right to a free college or technical education. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has set the bar high, and whether it’s funded as Sanders suggested by taxing Wall Street transactions or another method entirely, New York should be the first state to enshrine it in our constitution.