There’s no money, city officials keep condescendingly insisting, as battles over Bloomberg’s austerity budget continue to raise tempers this muggy New York summer. The city proposed to decimate spending by 20 percent, bad news for those of us who take public transportation, dwell in a building that might ever catch fire—or send children to school. In this context, it was jarring to learn—as the Independent Budget Office (IBO) reported in mid-June—that the mayor is planning to spend more than $620 million on jails over the next four years.
Yes, that’s right: Jails. Exactly where many of our kids will be headed if they don’t get a good education. Our mayor is thoughtfully looking ahead to the needs of a growing criminal underclass population, which will have been carefully nurtured by his own education policies and budget priorities.
Bloomberg plans to build a new jail on Rikers Island, renovate some jails in Brooklyn and Queens, and close some others. Those who assume that the mayor must have public safety in mind—after all, who wants dangerous criminals roaming the streets?—should keep in mind that, according to the Independent Budget Office, even after these millions have been spent, the system will accommodate fewer inmates than it does now.
That $620 million is serious money that would benefit our kids now, not 10 years hence when they start dealing drugs and holding up bodegas. Since the jail allocation is capital spending, as Doug Turetsky, the IBO’s helpful spokesperson, reminds me, the city couldn’t have used it to prevent teacher layoffs, which luckily were averted through union and city negotiations. But we could use it for school buildings—and we desperately need to do so.
In fact, we’re now doing just the opposite. With our schools desperately hampered by overcrowding, and communities torn apart by the Deparment of Education (DOE)’s destructive efforts to cram numerous schools into single buildings, the city is proposing to cut $600 million from its school construction capital plan.
School overcrowding is a crisis. Many New York City communities need more schools, and those schools need buildings. As has been widely reported, the DOE has done a terrible job of planning for neighborhoods’ needs. According to data compiled by Leonie Haimson in early May, more than one-fourth of our neighborhood schools had wait lists for kindergarten, comprised of children who lived in the school zones. Granted, some of the kids enrolled in those schools may go elsewhere, and in some areas we not only have capacity but choices. My Clinton Hill soon-to-be-kindergartener got a spot in his neighborhood school and four other decent elementary schools as well. But capacity is clearly a huge problem in many neighborhoods.
Another problem is that the DOE keeps opening new schools without building new buildings, instead cramming multiple—sometimes as many as six or even eight—schools under one roof. Such “co-locations,” as they’re inelegantly called—isn’t it disturbing that we entrust our kids’ education to people who make such an ugly botch of the English language?—hurt kids. In some cases the school administrations may be able to get along, even jointly fundraise for a new playground or sharing after-school programs. But often, there isn’t enough room in the building, or the DOE does not equitably divide the space. That’s why co-locations are debated so heatedly in our neighborhoods. It is no exaggeration to report that people scream in public meetings, and friends stop speaking to one another. At the meetings earlier this year to determine whether Arts and Letters, a school sharing space with P.S. 20 in Clinton Hill, should be allowed to expand, some P.S. 20 parents dramatized—and heightened the racial tensions surrounding—the space issues by comparing their children’s predicament to that of passengers on a slave ship. There was a heavy police presence at one of the meetings, as some of the school officials had received threats. One father even allowed his young son to read a poem about how much he hated the Arts and Letters children.
Co-locations are the subject of several lawsuits against the DOE, most visibly by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and several elected officials. A related lawsuit just filed by the New York City Parents Union describes inequalities at more than 75 charter and traditional public schools sharing space.
The lawsuits describe gross favoritism toward some children while others are horribly shortchanged. The Explore Excel Charter School is supposed to share space with Canarsie’s P.S. 114 beginning this fall; according to the UFT lawsuit, the two schools will be allowed almost the same amount of time on the playground even though P.S. 114 has almost three times more children than the charter school. Explore will have the gym for almost three hours, while P.S. 114 will get three and a half hours.
A report last year by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) on the effect of charter schools on the traditional public schools that share space with them was sobering. CEJ found that charters were expanding “at the cost of” existing traditional public schools, which continue to serve the poorest students, and the largest numbers of special-needs kids. The CEJ report described how existing schools had to give up significant space to accommodate the charters, and in some cases had to give up small-group instruction, professional development, afterschool programs, art rooms, science labs and, even, in one case, an entire sixth-grade. In Red Hook, the well-regarded P.S. 15 had to give up academic classrooms, a special- education office, and a computer room, and much more to accommodate the PAVE charter school, and is expected to suffer many more incursions as PAVE continues to expand. PAVE will be allowed to remain in the building until 2015, and P.S. 15 parents told CEJ their building would need 22 more classrooms than it has, if the charter school is to expand as planned.
The DOE’s way of deciding which buildings have room for an additional school has been casual, to say the least. In a survey of principals whose school buildings were deemed “underutilized” by the department, over half described their schools as “overcrowded.” In some cases, the DOE’s estimates of school capacity and those of the school officials have diverged by the hundreds. A report by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio last year found that the DOE failed to analyze the effect of these “co-locations” on children’s education—particularly art, music, and physical education, all of which, de Blasio dryly noted, were “not only valuable to children…but mandated under New York State law.” Indeed, East New York’s P.S. 308—according to the UFT lawsuit—has to convert a gym into a cafeteria to accommodate a charter school, and will lose 19 gym periods per week.
This conflict is heightened where charter schools share space with public schools—the situations that attract lawsuits and the loudest political denunciations—but there are even more situations in which traditional public schools are sharing space. There’s an equally common misperception that the unjust disparities between “co-located” schools are always racial—often they are not. In fact, because charter schools are popular among black families looking for better public-school options, the NAACP has been pilloried and picketed for its participation in this suit. But the 102-year-old civil rights organization seems to be taking the principled view that inequality is always wrong—even if some of its beneficiaries are black.
The worst thing about the co-locations is that they divide parents, who should be uniting to fight for all kids’ educations. While we yell and call our neighbors racists, the DOE is busy planning huge cuts to our children’s education, increasing class sizes, and placing crucial programs at risk. Parents embroiled in school site battles should remember the $620 million earmarked for jails rather than new school buildings, and direct their anger at the DOE rather than at one another. It’s been encouraging, in recent weeks, to see more and more parents doing just that; writing to City Council, joining protests, and even joining those stalwarts camped out at Bloombergville, a round-the-clock protest of the mayor’s austerity budget.
The solutions are not terribly complicated. We do need more excellent, innovative schools, especially in neighborhoods where the existing schools don’t have room for all the children, and families should have some choices, but neither excellence nor choice should come at the expense of anyone’s children. The city should scrap plans for jails and build schools instead. Since the construction industry is in a long slump, and many of our neighborhoods desperately need jobs, investment in new school buildings would be a temporary but welcome boost to our local economies.
Not all the new schools need to be built from scratch. Brooklyn is bursting with empty properties serving no purpose—why not renovate them to educate our kids? These ghostly shells, now serving as reproachful reminders of our real estate follies and failures, could instead become symbols of a much better future.
LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a Clinton Hill writer and mother whose son will begin public school this fall.