May 20, 2002

An Unequal Education


The public school situation in New York City is very sad. Pathetic.

The politicians can't even agree on who will run the schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's high-profile quest to take over the system has sunk, at least temporarily, into a quagmire of angry phone calls, raw politics and charges and countercharges of bad-faith negotiating.

At the same time, parents and others who are fed up with the way the schools have been treated by the city and the state have been getting themselves arrested in a series of protest demonstrations outside City Hall.

It's getting increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the schools. No one is homing in on the fundamental problem, which is figuring out ways to substantially improve the ability of students to read and do math.

One of the parents arrested last week was Larry Wood, an activist and organizer from the Upper West Side. "The quality of education received by New York City's children affects the quality of life of all New Yorkers, now and in the future," he said. "We know from our experience as parents that most children do not receive even a basic education in public school today."

Enough, said Mr. Wood, is enough. "No more excuses. New York City can and must do better for its children."

It's a sentiment with which I agree. But I don't see it happening. I don't think there will be much improvement in the schools at all over the next two or three years.

What very few politicians will acknowledge publicly is that the schools in New York City are starved for funds. This is an absolutely crucial point, because it is just about impossible to get a starving organism to perform better.

The city's public school students have to put up with crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms, chronic shortages of textbooks and supplies, demoralizing shortages of qualified teachers, science classes that don't have beakers, Bunsen burners, beam balances or microscopes — you name it, New York City kids haven't got it.

This is wrong.

It is also illegal. In a landmark ruling in January 2001, a State Supreme Court justice, Leland DeGrasse, declared that the state's method of financing public schools was unfair to New York City students. He struck down the financing system, saying it deprived city students of the "sound, basic education" guaranteed by the State Constitution.

"The majority of the city's public school students leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society," wrote Justice DeGrasse. "The schools have broken a covenant with students, and with society."

He ordered the state to develop a new method of financing.

This was the kind of decision that everyone should have rallied around, because everyone understood, deep in their hearts, that Justice DeGrasse's detailed analysis of the financing inequities was right on.

But that, of course, didn't happen. Instead, people ran for cover. And Gov. George Pataki, to his everlasting shame, announced less than a week later that the state would appeal the ruling. That appeal is still pending, which means the kids in New York City continue to suffer the devastating consequences of attending schools that are drastically underfinanced.

And while Mayor Bloomberg has been willing to fight vigorously for personal control of the school system, he has also shown an appalling willingness to bleed the system of municipal funding. With friends like Pataki and Bloomberg, New York City schoolkids don't have to bother scouring their neighborhoods for enemies.

Friday was the 48th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in the public schools. The Brown decision asserted that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

In many ways New York City students, of all colors, are treated the way black students were treated in the pre-Brown era. They are measured against standards that are the same for all. But they are not given the fundamental educational tools that are necessary to reach such high levels of competence.

It's a Catch-22 that we need to acknowledge and, once and for all, get rid of.

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company