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 New York 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 same 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 New York 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 low-income children than New York. 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, New York 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 New York 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 efficiently 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 New York 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 New York 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.