Op-Ed: Public Schools Lose when we Subsidize Private Education

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Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, lead sponsor of the bill that will provide public money to fund security guards at private schools.

William Alatriste for the New York City Council

Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, lead sponsor of the bill that will provide public money to fund security guards at private schools.

Every family that sends their children to a public school in black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City knows that resources are in short supply and the basic educational needs of our children are often not met. Which is why it’s surprising and deeply concerning that, this week, the City Council just handed $20 million of public funding over to private schools.

On Monday, the New York City Council passed a law that leaves the public on the hook for a $20 million bill from private and religious schools. City Council Intro. No. 65-A requires the public to pay for the salary and training costs for at least one security guard at nonpublic schools that enroll at least 300 students and two or more guards at schools that enroll more than 500 students. The new law is a bad use of money that will cost the city millions.

As a youth organizers fighting to end New York City’s School-to-Prison pipeline, I have long noted the problems with this legislation. The Department of Education already pays over $300,000,000 for the NYPD’s School Safety Division and it was unethical, and potentially unconstitutional, to redirect public money for the perceived staff needs of private schools, based solely on the demands of private schools.

It also won’t make our communities and children safer. The Chief of the NYPD’s School Safety Division, Brian Conroy, also testified against the bill, saying: “Intro. 65 would replace the expertise and judgment of the Police Commissioner and NYPD on where and what needs police protection on a given day with that of private, non-security experts.” Furthermore, he went on to explain that the NYPD is currently capable of and vigilantly ensures the safety of children in private and religious schools, “If and when a problem arises with a nonpublic school, the full resources of the Police Department are deployed appropriately to address it, whether it is a crime problem, quality of life problem, or a threat.”

The current cost estimate of $20 million could significantly rise next year and in following years as more non-public schools opt-in to have the public subsidize private education. When Councilmember Greenfield first introduced the bill last spring, it stipulated that the security guards would be provided by the NYPD’s School Safety Division and its estimated cost was between $50 million to $250 million.

Councilmember Greenfield, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Mayor de Blasio have claimed this first-of-its kind bill is necessary to keep all children safe. But if this claim was refuted by the highest-ranking member of the NYPD’s School Safety Division, shouldn’t they let the public know whom they consulted and how they came to this determination before passing an unprecedented bill that over the next five years could grow to more than $100 million in public funding to nonpublic schools? If the Mayor and City Council assure us we have the greatest police department in the world, why move forward with a bill redirecting millions of dollars to private institutions after the NYPD determined it was unnecessary?

The simple answer is special interests have been banging on the door in Albany to grab public funding for private schools and when they couldn’t get through the door in Albany, they knocked on the door in our city, and 43 members of our City Council let them right in. The effort to pass a private-school voucher disguised as a school tax credit failed in Albany last year. Undeterred, those same special interest groups set their sights on New York City and poured millions of dollars into passing this legislation.

At the stated hearing on Monday when the bill passed, Councilmember Greenfield joked that the city is flush with cash. I suggest Councilmember Greenfield, and the other 42 members of the Council that voted for this bill walk into one of our public schools, look our children in the face and tell them the city is flush with cash. Walk into one of our schools that lack a library. Walk into a school that lacks guidance counselors and social and emotional support staff. Walk into an overcrowded classroom that doesn’t have enough desks for students. Walk into a public school that doesn’t have the arts, or music, or lacks updated books and joke with those students, educators, and parents that our city is flush with cash. The sad joke is that, as our public schools continue to be woefully underfunded, our city just redirected public funding away from the public schools that sorely need it.

Kesi Foster is the coordinator of the Urban Youth Collaborative.