Back during the Vietnam era, there was a common bumper sticker that read “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need and the Pentagon holds a bake sale to raise money for a new bomber”. I thought of this last week when plans to build 21 new schools in New York City were halted because of the continuing battle over court ordered state aid to city schools. The money is there – it is just not going to the schools.
Mayor Bloomberg has admitted that the schools identified to not be built are in districts of NY state assembly representatives who have not advocated strongly enough on the city’s behalf in Albany. Perhaps the reasoning is that if enough people are angry enough about this, they will not re elect those representatives. Some parents likely will follow that reasoning. But the truth is – children don’t vote. Many children in New York City go home to parents and grandparents who may not be eligible to vote due to pending citizenship, or just plain apathy and powerlessness. Many people will re elect the assembly representatives anyway if there is little opposition, as is often the case. In truth, this may backfire on those who support the mayor – the children are denied court ordered funding for adequate schools by Albany, and so the mayor gets back at Albany by not building the schools the children need?
This disturbs me for three reasons.
One, I have taught in crowded New York City Schools– back in the 80s. I have seen middle schools so crowded that the students squeeze past each other in ample hallways at the change of class. I have seen closets converted to classrooms. I have seen the difficulty of teaching a class of 30 children, from different backgrounds, abilities, and sometimes speaking languages that are so uncommon it is difficult to assess just what they know and understand. The need is clearly there. It is an outrage that in more than 20 years, little has changed in some districts. Where has the money been for all this time?
Two, the money for these schools is to come from a pot of 23 billion dollars in state aid that the NY State supreme court ordered to address a long standing problem of inadequate state funding. There is money for lawyers on both sides to continue arguing the case – but not for the New York City children. Lawyers can argue, or lawyers can settle. Name a figure. The problem that this ruling addresses has gone on long enough. Making it go on longer while politicians argue over money will only make the problem worse. Albany needs to right the wrong and get on with the business of educating all the children of New York state, including the million or so in New York City.
Three, building the schools is a budgetary matter. New York City has the largest school district in the nation. You would think they would know to set aside enough money to take care of emergencies all these years. You would think that there are some things in the budget for schools or for the city that could go unfunded so that these schools can be built while the city and the state argue about money. Politicians often bring home unnecessary projects to look good – new parks, senior centers, recreation programs – what if the decision were made that there is no money for these because New York has to build schools, with or without Albany? The funding would be a drop in the bucket, to be sure, but the support of all the city’s school children would be clear. The decision to not build schools to punish assembly representatives does nothing to celebrate the city’s schoolchildren – it puts them down on hostage level. It sends the message that they are expendable, they can be treated as waste and discarded, they are pieces in a game and can be knocked off the board.
Building the schools is difficult, but likely it can be done. Of course, it will have to wait until it serves the interests of politicians as well as children. Since politicians are so comfortable with sound bites and slogans, here is a popular slogan for Mayor Bloomberg and the NY State Assembly and those who work long and hard in the NY State Department of Education while seldom visiting a classroom:
“Just Do It.”