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.

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.

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.