Children in New York City public schools
are being shortchanged - again
by Jonothan Kozol
The Nation magazine, June 10, 2002
Advocates for children in the New York City public schools
were cheering sixteen months ago when lawyers won a landmark ruling
from a State Supreme Court justice who determined that New York
had failed to meet its obligation to psovide a sound and basic
education to all children and who ordered that the state's unequal
system of school finance be dramatically transformed.
Those of us who had observed the aftermath of court decisions
like this elsewhere in the nation did not hold our breath to see
immediate infusions of new money pouring down like mighty waters
into underfunded innercity schools such as the ones I visit in
New York's South Bronx. Legal appeals by governors and maddening
resistance to court orders by state legislatures are a pattern
everywhere when court decisions pose the seemingly unpleasant
prospect of a level playing field in education for the children
of the poor. But even the most cynical observers could not easily
have looked ahead one year and have prefigured a scenario by which
conditions in the district that had won this legal victory would
actually get worse.
Instead of reaping even minor benefits from victory in court,
New York City's schools were soon to face some of the largest
budget cuts in recent history, with cumulative losses from last
summer to this spring projected at about $1 billion. "Of
the ten school districts getting hit the hardest," Newsday
noted' "three of them are among the poorest in the city"-Districts
9 and 10, which serve two hypersegregated sections of the Bronx,
and District 6 in Washington Heights.
"The kind of choices we have to make are too awful for
words. We have to choose between seats and libraries, laboratories
and gyms," Schools Chancellor Harold Levy stated bluntly
in December. More serious cuts armounced during the next four
months appeared to pose still graver choices for the Chancellor.
More than 1,000 classroom aides who work with teachers, supervise
lunchrooms and patrol the corridors of overcrowded schools were
scheduled to be cut, along with badly needed mentorships and training
for new teachers, thousands of whom have no experience with children
but are placed in the most deeply segregated and impoverished
schools where children's needs are greatest and demands upon a
teacher's ingenuity and moral stamina the most extreme.
With salaries for city teachers far beneath the levels of
nearby suburban systems (median salaries for teachers in the city,
for example, are some $36,000 less than those in Scarsdale, $30,000
less than in White Plains and $19,000 less than in Westchester
County as a whole), recruitment of sufficient adult bodies merely
to fill classrooms in the poorest neighborhoods has come to be
a frenzied race down to the final wire each September. Levy's
impressive efforts at recruiting highly motivated young idealists
notwithstanding, New York's schools are looking at unprecedented
shortages of qualified instructors in the fall, as principals
anticipate retirements at record levels.
All schools in the city do not suffer equally, of course,
when funds are cut. Numerous schools in relatively wealthy New
York City neighborhoods, although they suffer from these cuts
as well, are able to protect themselves, to some degree at least,
by raising money privately. Parents on Manhattan's Upper West
Side, for example, have been paying many school expenses "out
of their own pockets," as the New York Times's Bob Herbert
notes, taking up "collections" even to meet classroom
salaries or pay for a librarian, which parents in poor neighborhoods
can obviously not do. So the inequalities between the city's schools
and those of nearby suburbs are compounded by internal inequalities
between the schools that draw on parent wealth and those that
must depend exclusively on public funds.
Some of the threatened cutbacks might have been reversed ~t
taxes once imposed upon commuters from the suburbs working in
the city were restored and if a modest "education surtax"
on the incomes of the wealthiest New Yorkers-a proposal recently
advancedbyNewYork's City Council-wonthe backing of Mayor Michael
Bloomberg, who would then need to obtain approval from the state.
(A tax of only 2 percent on 13,300 wealthy individuals, as Dan
Cantor of the Working Families Party notes, would raise nearly
$1 billion for the city's schools, while a tax of half a penny
on stock transfers would bring in $800 million more.)
The Mayor, however, who insisted the latest round of threatened
cutbacks should be "easily absorbable," opposes raising
taxes, claiming that the funds already going to the public schools
are poorly used, and alleging further that as much as half the
school board's money is not even being spent on actual instruction
but is squandered somehow in the school system's bureaucracy.
As a matter of record, NewYork City spends a higher portion
of its budget on instruction and associated costs within the schools
themselves than any ofthe other 1001argest districts in the nation.
(Including counselors and teacher training, transportation, food,
security, technology and building upkeep, as the Chancellor observed
in answer to the Mayor, 90 percent of the entire budget goes directly
to the schools.) The Mayor, however, who has made it clear that
he would like to wrest control of New York City's schools from
New York's Board of Education, may have reasons of his own for
casting doubts upon the very able Chancellor's effectiveness and
has, in any case, refused to back down from these reckless accusations.
As Governor George Pataki and state legislators met in closeddoor
sessions in mid-May to come up with sufficient money to restore
about $200 million of the threatened cutbacks to the New York
City schools and to return some other money owed the city from
the year before, mild optimism briefly flared among school advocates,
and Levy noted cautiously that "some of the most severe reductions
that our schools were forced to contemplate can be scaled back."
But the partial restoration of these funds had been achieved by
onetime smoke-and-mirror deals that promised no new source of
revenue and, in effect, as budget experts and some legislators
said' merely deferred the crisis of the city's schools to years
In refusing to provide the NewYork City public schools with
the enormously expanded and consistent funding base they desperately
need, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg point to the decline
in tax receipts that followed New York's economic, downturn in
the wake of the attack upon the World Trade Center | towers in
September, even though the first big cutback of last year was
put in place a month before the terrorist attacks. But even the
unarguable fact of economic downturn in New York is insufficient
to explain or justify the permanent shortchanging of its children,
which takes place routinely in good economic times and bad, with
bad times seized upon politically to justify these pedagogic thefts
while, in good times, losses undergone in crisis years have seldom
In an earlier budget crisis in the 1970s, for instance, NewYork
City's schools were devastated by the loss of school librarians,
a virtual freeze on school construction and repair, and-possibly
the greatest injury to children in the poorest neighborhoods where
health conditions were the worst-the loss of school physicians.
More than a decade later, in the aftermath of an expanded period
of economic growth in which financial markets soared and an entire
generation of flamboyantly free-spending Wall Street millionaires
and billionaires emerged, schools I visited remained in shameful
disrepair, school libraries and librarians had not been restored,
art and music programs-once the glory of the city's public schools-had
all but disappeared, and children in the poorest and most overcrowded
schools attended classes frequently in basement corridors or storerooms
without windows. The 400 school physicians who had tended to the
health of children in the early 1970s had been reduced to twenty-three,
a particularly vicious injury to kids of color in such sections
ofthe city as the Bronx, where pediatric HIV began to take its
toll and pediatric asthma rates had climbed to levels rarely seen
before in the developed world. Yet all too few of those within
the city's orchestrating classes who have voices that can actually
be heard by those in power were demanding that the savage cutbacks
of the prior decade be reversed.
Budget crises, then, do not explain and cannot be exploited
to justify the education cutbacks of the past nor those inflicted
on the children of New York again this year. A less polite but
more convincing explanation is the shift in racial demographics
in the student population of the city in this period. Up until
the late 1960s, when white children in large numbers still attended
New York City's public schools, spending levels tended to be fairly
close to those of the surrounding counties. As late as 1970, in
fact, when nearly four in ten schoolchildren in New York were
white, the city spent a trifle more per pupil than was spent in
Nassau County and adjoining Suffolk County on Long Island, and
only about 5 percent below the levels in Westchester. Three decades
later, with white student population having plunged to a surviving
remnant of 14.5 percent, New York City's spending has collapsed
to levels far below all three of these suburban counties.
Noreen Connell, a respected advocate for children who directs
the Educational Priorities Panel in New York, speaks candidly
about the reasons for this damaging decline in tax support for
New York City's public schools. "If you close your eyes to
the changing racial composition of the schools and only look at
budget actions and political events," she says, "you're
missing the assumptions that are underlying these decisions."
When parents ask for something better for their kids, she says,
"the assumption is that these are parents who can be discounted.
These are kids who just don't count-children we don't value."
The contrasts between what is spent today to educate a child
in the poorest NewYork City neighborhoods, where teacher salaries
are often even lower.than the city averages, and spending levels
in the wealthiest suburban areas are daunting challenges to any
hope New Yorkers might retain that even semblances of fairness
still prevail. Teachers in the schools of District 7 in Mott Haven,
for example, where some 99.8 percent of children are black or
Latino, now receive a median salary that is approximately half
the median salary of teachers in the affluent communities of Great
Neck and Manhasset. (The actual numbers, which are annually compiled
by the state, are $42,000 for a teacher in Mott Haven, versus
$82,000 for the teachers in these two Long Island suburbs.) Including
all the other costs of operation of a public school, a third-grade
class of twenty-five children in the schools of Great Neck now
receives at least $200,000 more per year than does a class the
sarne size in Mott Haven, while children in a comparable classroom
in Manhasset now receive a quarter-million dollars more.
With recession or without recession, then, in lean years or
in fat, with victories in court or without victories in court,
children of color in NewYork remain the losers in a game whose
rules are set almost entirely by white people. According to a
ranking of school finance inequalities among the fifty states
released four months ago by Education Week, forty-seven states
did better by lowincome children than NewYork. Only Maryland and
Pennsylvania did.worse (and Maryland, which radically revised
its funding formula this spring, now has a far more equitable
system than New York's). In the racial segregation of black and
Latino children in its public schools, NewYork ranks first within
the nation. Having long since turned its back on the moral implications
of Brown v.
Board of Education, the nation's largest and now uncontested
bastion of apartheid education does not even seem prepared to
live up to the tarnished promises of Plessy v. Ferguson. A city
that once sent its bravest children south to save the soul of
Mississippi now may need a fierce soul-saving of its own.
Beyond the arcane details of the day-to-day debates about
school governance and finance that must necessarily preoccupy
the politicians and the press-whether the NewYork City schools
are someday to be salvaged by a tax on stock transactions or a
city surtax on its richest residents, or by a vast expansion of
the funding it receives from Albany, or by some combination of
all three- a larger point about perennial betrayal must be made
in terms far less polite and daily-news-specific than the bits-and-pieces
arguments in which too many of us find ourselves repeatedly engaged.
The ultimate issue, Bloomberg's troubling diversionary foray notwithstanding,
is not one of governance or of administrative competence or waste.
The issue is the chronic destitution of a system that devalues
and sequesters kids of color almost as effficiently as did the
schools of Mississippi half a century before but does so with
a charming pretense of benign intent and just enough handwringing
on occasion to dispel the sense of shame the powerful might otherwise
be forced to bear.
Bloombergs come and Giulianis go, but the persistent underfunding
of the schools that serve the children of poor people in NewYork
goes on and on. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought
the New York suit to its initial victory last year and is now
back in court to fight the governor's appeal, is meanwhile reaching
out to grassroots coalitions and to parent groups throughout NewYork
in efforts to create a broad-based movement of support. Eloquent
leaders with strong voices of unmediated outrage have emerged.
As the organizing work intensifies and as the network of committed
activists expands, it suddenly seems possible to hope that a far-reaching
struggle on a scale that Northern cities have not seen in many
decades may, before long, be at hand.
Jonathan Kozol is the National BookAward-winning author of
Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities and other books on
children in inner-city schools.