Rebell Op-Ed: NYC Breaks Faith with Schools
By Michael Rebell
In April 2007, headlines blared the happy news that, following a 13-year lawsuit, New York City's public schools would receive an additional $5.2 billion annually, to be phased in over four years. The state approved a spending package in which it would provide 60% of the funds, and the city agreed to provide the rest.
This past week, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to slash the city's 2009 public school budget $428 million below what was initially promised. Although the state, even in a difficult budget year, has kept its part of the bargain, the city now wants to renege. Worse, city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wants to do much of the cutting at 74 top-performing schools that chiefly serve middle-class children.
How did a $5 billion commitment go up in smoke?
"Economic downturn, leading to budget deficits," is the mayoral refrain. Yet even the mayor projects no deficit for the city's 2009 budget, and the Independent Budget Office says he is overstating deficits for 2010-2011.
The mayor - ever the businessman - is being ultraconservative about spending. Normally that's laudable, but here it penalizes today's students for a scenario that's only possible for tomorrow. The landmark school funding settlement reached between the city schools, the state and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity - for whom I served as executive director and counsel - worked specifically because we did not try to play Robin Hood. Instead of seeking to fund poor districts at the expense of wealthier ones, we argued that all children have a right to a sound, basic education.
That spared New York the bloodbaths that, in other cities and states, pitted rich against poor. Our coalition included not only community leaders from Harlem but also mothers in Scarsdale who, assured of continued funding for their own children's schools, recognized a moral obligation to procure it for others.
The mayor and chancellor are undermining that coalition.
What's more, Klein's claim that state regulations require him to target wealthier schools is simply false. Needier schools must get the lion's share of an increase, but the anticipated $5.2 billion annual budget boost was intended to at least hold harmless better-off schools as well.
There's more at stake than a mere dollar figure. The CFE lawsuit argued that children need stable, sustained resources throughout their academic careers. Schools, too, need an assurance of stable funding to be held accountable. The mayor's proposed cuts would destroy that promise - and signal the return of two pernicious shell games we thought we'd ended.
In one of those games, the infamous "three men in a room" - the governor and the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate - would set state education spending based on politics rather than educational need. In the other, New York City officials would go up to Albany each year, hats in hand, to procure additional school funds. Inevitably, state legislators would add to the city's education budget. Then, the city would spend that "additional" money on education - while redeploying its own budget for other purposes. Eventually, state legislators got wise and curtailed their generosity.
The CFE settlement, by creating a four-year, need-based budget plan, was meant to usher in a new era of transparency. But now the city is up to its old tricks - and that may induce the state Legislature to revert to theirs.
Thanks to the infusion of resources from the settlement, New York City's schools will be better off than most. Even after the mayor's proposed cuts, we would still increase funding of our schools next year in overall dollars. But the increases would go to teachers' salaries, pension plan payments and rising energy costs, and not to the new programs that the CFE case demonstrated would improve students' learning.
"Children First" is the slogan the mayor and chancellor once used to describe their education agenda. Regrettably, their legacy is in danger of becoming "children last."
This opinion piece appeared in the New York Daily News on Sunday, May 26, 2008.