On August 5, State Supreme Court Judge Lyle Frank ordered the City Council to reconsider the education budget for the 2023 school year it approved in June, which cut at least $215 million from the 2022 budget. A lawsuit filed July 18 by two parents and two teachers argued that the budget approval was illegal because the city’s school board, the Panel for Education Policy (PEP), had not voted on it before the Council did.
City schools Chancellor David C. Banks got around the PEP voting requirement by issuing an “emergency declaration” on May 31. Laura D. Barbieri, a lawyer representing the four plaintiffs, argues that “no emergency justified the chancellor’s ignoring the proper procedure.”
However, on August 9, the City appealed the August 5 ruling, reinstating the original budget cuts until the appeal is heard on August 29.
Estimates of how much the education budget was cut vary widely. There are several sources of funding, and the biggest losses have come from those based on enrollment and attendance, which shrank during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Eric Adams’ office puts the figure at $215 million. City Comptroller Brad Lander has said it’s $469 million. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, the Manhattan representative on the PEP, says the cuts amount to approximately $1.42 billion.
The cuts have forced many city schools to consider laying off staff and eliminating extracurricular activities and entire departments.
Judge Frank’s ruling used Comptroller Lander’s numbers: His order requires the city to restore $469 million to the education budget. If it fails to do that, the budget will revert to last year’s numbers. With Mayor Adams’ appeal, this requirement is on hold, and the budget has reverted to its original numbers.
The cuts provoked protests before the Council approved the city budget June 13, and they have continued since then. Protesters at a town hall on public safety held by Mayor Adams in Harlem on July 11 were removed by security guards. Matt Gonzales says he was “dragged out of the room.”
“Our purpose in attending was to make clear that when talking about public safety, we need to talk about public education,” Gonzales, a policy analyst, says. “We wanted to confront Mayor Adams publicly, as he is the only person who can restore the budget.”
On July 13, 41 Council members, many of whom had voted to approve the budget, signed a letter asking the Adams administration to restore the education budget. Several attended a rally on the steps of Tweed Hall, the Department of Education’s Manhattan offices, on July 18.
The cuts forced many city schools to consider laying off staff and eliminating extracurricular activities and entire departments. P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan, a Harlem elementary school, is set to lose over $400,000. It already lacked a physical-education teacher and an assistant principal, and was prepared to lose arts and technology programs.
“There were a lot of teary-eyed students when I told them I wouldn’t be their teacher next year, and that they wouldn’t have a music program at all,” says Paul Trust, a music teacher at P.S. 39 in Park Slope who is one of the four plaintiffs in the suit. “Music is essential to what makes us human. To sever that, what do we become?”
“Schools are laying off arts teachers and music teachers, but those are precisely the way to reintegrate students back into school and cultivate a love of learning,” says Queens public-school teacher Amanda Vender.
Though activists initially celebrated the lawsuit win, reverting back to the initial budget until the appeal is heard means that, with school beginning on September 8, principals will likely have to make hiring and budgeting decisions without knowing which budget they will operate under, and many teachers will remain unsure if they’ll have a job.
Ambitious Visions for the Future
Teacher and parent activists criticize what this situation means for the city’s commitment to public education. More than just restoring the budget, they want far-reaching improvements to the public-education system. “I don’t just want to restore the cuts. I want to invest more,” says Kaliris Salas-Ramirez.
She says the city has the money to fund public education, in the form of leftover federal stimulus money, its general reserves, and its $1.95 billion Rainy Day Fund.
One of the major reforms many teacher and parent activists support is smaller classes. In June, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the city to limit class sizes to 20 students in kindergarten through third grade, 23 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school. However, Governor Kathy Hochul has not yet signed it; she has until December 31.
More than just restoring the budget, parent and teacher activists want far-reaching improvements to the public-education system
Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, says the bill would provide “a huge opportunity for New York City children to be known by their teachers, and for their teachers to provide them the academic and emotional support they need.”
“I saw in the pandemic what a difference it made when we had 10 students in the classroom,” says Amanda Vender, who also has two children in city public schools. “You can meet students where they are and get to know them in a way you cannot otherwise.”
Salas-Ramirez, a medical professor at City University of New York whose field is behavioral development, says schools should be based on an “enrichment model” — such as “problem-based learning, hands-on learning” — rather than a testing-based model, and “this should be supported schoolwide, not just for the Gifted and Talented program.”
Aixa Rodriguez, an English Language Learner middle-school teacher in the Bronx, would roll back the city’s moves toward smaller schools. If smaller schools were consolidated into larger ones, she says, they would have the staff to provide a full suite of services and non-core classes, “something for everyone.”
Vender, an English as a New Language teacher, criticizes the lottery system, in which admission to many middle and high schools is based on random selection. She believes it increases segregation, because many children of immigrants are shut out if they move into their district after the lottery. She advocates for the “controlled choice” system adopted by District 15 in Brooklyn, in which families rank which schools they want their children to attend, but an algorithm is used to have schools reflect the district’s demographics.
Many activists argue that the Adams administration’s reluctance to restore the cuts is a sign of its intention to boost enrollment in charter schools, and believe that this is a major obstacle in achieving reform. Matt Gonzales describes Adams’ plan, like that of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, as privatization by sabotage: “starving public schools of resources, causing them to fail, and then replacing them with charter schools.” Salas-Ramirez believes that one tactic is to enroll a high number of students in charter schools, but move low-performing students to regular public schools immediately after the budget is finalized on October 31; this leaves the charter schools highly funded, based on their September enrollments.
Applying political pressure to Council members paid off in gaining their commitment to restoring the cuts, says Jonathan Soto, a community organizer in the northeast Bronx, and should be continued when advocating for future reform. “A few City Council members have said they would not vote to approve further cuts to education,” he says. “The protests were centered around getting these elected officials’ commitment to protecting education in the future.”
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