MTA Budget Cuts Pose New Threat To School Choice

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When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was first elected, in 2001, he linked his future legacy to improving public-school education in New York City — a commitment he reiterated at his State of the City address in January, 2010, saying “Our schools are the future of our city.” Now that the MTA is considering eliminating subsidized Metrocards for more than 550,000 school children, the administration’s goals of free and unfettered access to the city’s schools faces a new obstacle.

If students can’t get to school for free, they will not be able to freely choose among the city’s more than 400 high schools. Even if students still choose distant schools, they may not have the money to attend every day. In a city where attendance is already a challenge – a 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs documented long-term absences in 20 percent of city students – eliminating the transit subsidy could spell even lower attendance.

When asked to speak to the impact that losing Metrocards might have on school choice, Department of Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg said, “We have 31 zoned high schools,” in an email to City Limits. “It is premature to comment further.”

But it may not be easy for parents to put their children in neighborhood, or zoned, schools again, because the Department of Education (DOE) has shuttered so many of them, replacing them with new ‘choice’ schools, open to students citywide. Since 2002, the DOE has closed 91 schools, predominantly neighborhood schools with a history of poor academic outcomes, and is appealing to the New York State Supreme Court for permission to close 19 more. Today, there are no zoned high schools in Manhattan and only a few survive in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Most of the 31 zoned high schools that remain are in Queens and on Staten Island. They make up less than 10 percent of the total number of high schools citywide.

Under school choice, students may apply for and attend any high school in the city, provided they meet entrance criteria. A student in Staten Island can travel uptown to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music, Arts and the Performing Arts; another can trek from the Bronx to the progressive City-As-School in Manhattan. Without the subsidy, low- and middle-income families would have to spend at least $80 per month per child on school transportation.

“This is simply unfair,” said Department of Education Chancellor Joel I. Klein, during March budget hearings in Albany. “This reduction in funding could force families to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets toward school transportation costs.”

The MTA, facing dwindling revenues and ballooning deficits reported to approach $800 million, said in December that it can no longer support free student travel. MTA planners propose instead that students begin paying half-fare in September 2010 and full fare in 2011. The city, which has been contributing to student transportation at funding levels that have not changed since 1995, says it cannot make up for MTA’s cuts by increasing its contribution. The state faces its own multi-billion-dollar budget gap, also making additional funding unlikely.

The MTA has postponed a final decision on the matter. The Mayor’s budget, which was anticipated this week but is delayed until at least May 6, is contingent on the state budget, according to Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna.

“If they truly went cold-turkey and basically imposed 180 days’ worth of transportation costs on the average family, it would be a huge political and policy issue,” said Jeff Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“Anger and indignation over this is appropriate,” says Henig. “This is untenable on some broad grounds of equity and fairness.”

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