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 provide 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 inner-city 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 announced 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.