At the end of the school year, Annie Tan, a special education elementary school teacher in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York, said teachers typically have a party. This year, however, that celebration was mired by the loss of 16 teachers from her school who are being excessed (ie, moved to different schools and positions) as a result of massive public education budget cuts that are being enacted by the New York City Board of Education and Mayor Eric Adams’ administration.
The loss of those teachers, and the resulting vacancies that will remain unfilled, means that Tan’s students will continue to not have an art program, and dual-language programs will be limited for students who are still learning English.
“It’s just devastating,” said Tan. “We’re going to have huge instability in our schools, and this is happening across the city.”
With understandable frustration, Tan noted that the public school system has been underfunded for years, which makes it hard to square the fact that the New York City school system still has billions of unspent dollars from COVID-19 federal relief funding. She views these recent cuts as a part of an unrelenting attack on public education and teachers, who have worked understaffed, with inadequate resources, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even after a decently funded year, we still had a lot of unmet needs. I can’t imagine going backwards,” added Tan. “We see this decades-old problem of chronically underfunded austerity schools. Our kids deserve better.”
As part of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ first annual budget, which was finalized in June 2022 and passed by the city council, the public education system in New York City is set to lose upwards of $1 billion in funding. Adams characterized the cuts as an adjustment based on declining student enrollment—and enrollment numbers have decreased 6.4 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—but that rationale doesn’t explain why per pupil funding was also cut.
Implementing the cuts will mean reducing the budget for public education in New York City by $215 million in Fall 2022, then reducing the budget further by about $300 million for the 2023-24 school year, then cutting another $375 million in 2024-25. An analysis by the non-partisan nonprofit Class Size Matters found that a full accounting of funding cuts to public schools in New York City brings the total budgetary loss to over $1.7 billion, with the average budget reduction per school reaching 13.1 percent.
“It is unacceptable for the [Department of Education] to slash school budgets at this momentum,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander in a statement on the city’s budget. “Our schools have endured the hardest two years and need every penny to provide the social, emotional, and academic supports that all our students deserve this summer and fall.”
Teachers have criticized the budget cuts and decried the alarming impact the cuts will have on classroom sizes, resources, and the ability of schools to attract and retain enough teachers.
The union representing teachers in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, has organized protests against the cuts and is pushing the city to fund social workers, counselors, psychologists, and union initiatives (like the UFT Teacher Center, the Member Assistance Program, and the Positive Learning Collaborative) that representatives say provide crucial support for students and educators.
“We’re already stretched thin and that’s with the funding we did have,” said Travis Malekpour, a high school teacher in Queens, New York. “It’s really just a punch in the gut for not just my school, but every school in the city.”
As a result of the budget cuts, Malekpour said four teacher vacancies in his school aren’t going to be filled.
“That’s going to definitely adversely affect not just class size, but the quality of education that our students [get],” added Malekpour. “Between the shortages of educators and the greater needs of students (after what I witnessed through the school year, as we’ve returned to full-on in-person learning) and the continued support the students are going to need next year, I just see this as something that’s really going to adversely affect students in my community, and I imagine it’s going to be the same throughout the city.”
Jake Jacobs, a middle school art teacher in the Bronx, New York, expressed concerns that Adams is enacting these budget cuts as part of a broader effort to defund public education in favor of charter schools.
“Teachers are scared that [Mayor Adams is] defunding public schools so that they go downhill, which makes it easier for charter schools to pick off our best students, and they’re going to make the case that public schools need to be closed and replaced, and that they have to open up more charter schools,” said Jacobs. “This is also the year that we’re in a new contract negotiation, and it’s kind of setting the tone for the contract negotiations with the UFT.”
These suspicions from teachers are not unfounded—Adams has received hefty support from pro-charter school groups. One executive of the charter school lobbying group StudentsFirstNY actually took a leave of absence last to lead a political action committee with the expressed goal of backing Adams’ mayoral campaign. Adams, moreover, raised over $6 million for his campaign from charter-school-supporting billionaire hedge fund managers Dan Loeb, Kenneth Griffin, and Steve Cohen.
Since elected, Adams has appointed several charter school advocates to the Panel for Education Policy, which oversees the New York City Board of Education.
In April 2022, Mayor Adams appeared with billionaire Mike Bloomberg, a prolific advocate of charter schools, to unveil a $50 million initiative to expand summer school programs, but those funds are exclusively available to charter schools. Meanwhile, New York City’s free summer camp program for public school students, the Summer Rising program, experienced a spike in demand for enrollment and quickly ran out of available slots in late Spring.
The budget cuts to New York City public schools come as the New York legislature passed a bill to limit classroom sizes in New York City. The bill, which Adams opposed, is awaiting Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature. Once signed, the bill would limit mayoral control over the New York City school system to two years (Adams was advocating for a four year extension).
As Jacobs explained, the past year was already exceedingly rough on students and educators alike. With schools fully reopening, teachers have had to adjust while simultaneously managing the effects of chronic understaffing, with Jacobs himself and other teachers having to take on extra work and work longer hours to try to fill in the gaps. The budget cuts, he fears, will only exacerbate these issues.
“We’ve just been so beaten down by this year,” he added. “It’s going to be very disruptive.”