Some of the threatened cutbacks might have been reversed if 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 advanced by New York's City Council--won the 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, New York City spends a higher portion of its budget on instruction and associated costs within the schools themselves than any of the other 100 largest 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 closed-door 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 immediately ahead.
In refusing to provide the New York 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 been restored.
In an earlier budget crisis in the 1970s, for instance, New York 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 of the 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.