Thu, Dec 18, 2008
Set to Go Forward, Schools May Instead Go 2 Steps Back
Jennifer Medina, The New York Times
Just two years ago, the stateâ€™s highest court ended a decades-long lawsuit over school funding by promising billions of dollars more for New York City schools, a ruling the governor at the time vowed would be only a starting point. School officials and education advocates took their long and aging wish lists to Albany, where legislators greeted them with open arms and passed a budget that sent a historic $710 million more to New York City schools in 2007.
Now, under a new governor and amid a widening financial crisis, those wish lists have quickly transformed into cut lists, and schools across the city are bracing for reductions that advocates say could total as much as $1.5 billion next year. And the hard-fought victories from the long-running lawsuit, known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, have evaporated even before they were realized.
â€śThis is a huge cut, to the point of devastating,â€ť said Geri D. Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the educational advocacy group that filed the lawsuit. â€śWe believe itâ€™s the largest school aid cut in New York history.â€ť
In 2006, the Court of Appeals ruled that the city schools needed roughly $2 billion a year more to provide students with a â€śsound basic education,â€ť but largely left the details up to the Legislature. On Tuesday, Gov. David A. Paterson said he was â€śfirmly committedâ€ť to fulfilling the court mandate and his predecessorâ€™s promise to phase in an even larger increase, reaching $7 billion a year, but essentially proposed doing it over eight years instead of four.
Ms. Palast said on Wednesday that her group would consider returning to court if state lawmakers approve Mr. Patersonâ€™s plan.
â€śWeâ€™re certainly talking to our lawyers and consulting them on what needs to be done,â€ť she said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had planned to use the sudden increase of money to expand the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in full-day pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, add after-school programs and arts and gym classes for elementary schools, reduce class sizes in middle schools and improve college and career counseling in high schools.
Instead, the mayor â€” who has repeatedly ordered steep cuts of his own to the Education Departmentâ€™s $20 billion budget â€” predicted on Tuesday that Mr. Patersonâ€™s proposed cut of roughly $660 million in state aid â€śwould pretty much go straight to the classroom,â€ť warning of teacher layoffs, â€ślarger class sizes and fewer services.â€ť He said, â€śIf we donâ€™t have any money, we have to have fewer teachers in front of the same number of students.â€ť
While Ms. Palast and other advocates plan to lobby for an income tax increase for the wealthiest residents to reverse some cutbacks, many seem to view that effort as an increasingly hopeless battle.
â€śNobody can deny that we are in a terrible position financially,â€ť said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents the cityâ€™s 74,000 teachers. â€śThe question is, is it a slow stop or a screeching stop? Will we be moving backward or will be able to move forward, even if slowly?â€ť
Last spring, when the mayor proposed a 3.5 percent cut to the Education Department budget, the teachersâ€™ union and education advocates formed the â€śKeep the Promisesâ€ť coalition, holding a rally with thousands of parents outside City Hall and the State Capitol to demand that the city and state fulfill their pledge for a multibillion-dollar increase.
Ms. Weingarten said she did not expect such protests this year. Still, if schools see major cuts â€” losing entire arts programs or cutting back on extra tutoring â€” public outrage will be inevitable.
Norm Fruchter, the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said that while some people had been unhappy with the most recent cuts, the city is now facing â€śan unmitigated disaster.â€ť
â€śI fear D.O.E. will not take the obvious steps in this fiscal crisis: first, make the deepest possible cuts to central administration, then reach out to the constituencies most affected to define how schools can best be protected,â€ť Mr. Fruchter said.
But Dennis M. Wolcott, the deputy mayor for education, said that with the magnitude of the proposed cuts, â€śyou could close central down and there is still not enough money.â€ť
â€śThe idea had always been to pump as much money as we can into the schools to create options,â€ť Mr. Wolcott said. â€śThe options available to principals to choose from are going to be limited. Instead of hiring that extra teacher to help, they just may not be able to.â€ť
For former Chancellor Harold O. Levy, who was forced to make midyear cuts during the Giuliani administration, the education budget looks in many ways like a return to the era that led to the fiscal equity suit. He said he did not envy his successor, Joel I. Klein, and noted that the current administration had planned to use the influx of money to reduce class size, and â€śthereâ€™s nothing more expensive.â€ť
â€śTrying to improve results in a down market is hellish,â€ť said Mr. Levy, who is now a managing director of an investment firm. â€śWhen thereâ€™s a budget hole of this size, it really is not realistic to say that commitments made to in totally different economic circumstances are going to be adhered to without any deviation.â€ť
A version of this article appeared in print on December 18, 2008, on page A41 of the New York edition.
Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the stateâ€™s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >