To balance New York State's budget in the deepening recession, Gov. David Paterson is proposing a thousand painful cuts in state services from education to health care to the arts. But his proposed cuts would fall disproportionately on parks and open space, particularly on the principal state funding source for this, the Environmental Protection Fund. The dedicated fund, as well as other state money, has been instrumental in the city's reclamation of the waterfront over the last decade and in protecting some of its last natural and open spaces.
The Environmental Protection Fund was set up in 1993 to provide a consistent source of funding, in good times and bad, to protect the state's environment and public health and invest in its future sustainability. The fund's revenue comes primarily from the state real estate transfer tax, and the money is supposed to be spent only on open space, solid waste, parks, recreation and historic preservation.
Over the last decade, appropriations for the Environmental Protection Fund have fluctuated between $100 million and $150 million a year.
Like a child's piggybank to an unscrupulous parent, however, the fund often presented a tempting target for governors seeking to balance the budget. They have frequently "swept" unspent money from the fund and used it for unrelated programs. "Over the years, the Environmental Protection Fund has been raided to the tune of half a billion dollars," said Tim Sweeney, director of the Campaign for Parks, a state parks advocacy coalition. "They couch it in terms of loans but none of the money has been repaid so far."
"It's not really extra money â€“ it's money that should go to environmental programs," said Jessica Ottney, director of state government relations at The Nature Conservancy. It often takes longer than a year for new programs and complicated transactions like land acquisitions to spend allocated money, she said. Taking unspent funds "eliminates money for projects that are already under way and then it may not be there when it is needed."
In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature agreed that there was a need to significantly increase funding and passed legislation to boost appropriations to $250 million in fiscal year 2008-2009 and nearly $300 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year and subsequent years.
Then the financial crisis hit, and Paterson reduced spending mid-year to $205 million and swept $25 million into the general fund. For next fiscal year, the governor proposes to keep the fund at $205 million and sweep $45 million of unspent money.
In the most draconian cut for the coming year, he entirely eliminated the fund's program that supports zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums, which would force severe cutbacks in hours, public programs and free visiting days at some of the city's major tourist attractions.
State capital funds to continue building the Hudson River Park remain for the coming year, but the governor is proposing zero funding â€“- both capital and operating -â€“ for Governors Island, which relies on both city and state funds, although not through the Environmental Protection Fund.
The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp., the city-state partnership that operates the former military base and is developing it for green space, recreation, education and other uses, has been opening the island to the public every summer. Last year, more than 128,000 people took the short ferry ride to listen to folk music, picnic, tour the historic military sites and bicycle around the car-free island.
Without state funding, the island would remain shuttered this summer. Although the city has said it would provide its share of the $14.8 million in operating funds requested by the corporation, it may withhold that money if there is no state match. Uncertainty over state funding could jeopardize millions of dollars of private funding from the arts and concert groups that are now planning next summer's programs. Keeping the island closed this summer could cost the city several million dollars in lost tourism revenue, according to Robert Pirani, executive director of the Governors Island Alliance.
Eliminating capital funding would bring to a halt plans for developing the island and creating more than 100 acres of parkland, and allow further deterioration of the historic buildings. "We're nervous that if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward," said Pirani.
No Deposit, No Return
Under Paterson's budget proposal, funding for parks and open space would be cut not just in the upcoming fiscal year but permanently diminished through a change in the funding formula.
Revenue for the fund now comes from the real estate transfer tax. In past years, that tax has generated about $1 billion a year, but receipts have fallen with the decline in the real estate market. Many other states use a similar mechanism, tying a fee on real estate transactions to funding for projects that would mitigate the impact of development, provide recreation and green space for growing communities, and protect water bodies and natural areas.
Paterson wants to replace this source of environmental funding with money from unclaimed bottle deposits. That would require the passage of an updated bottle bill, the so-called "bigger better bottle bill," which would expand the 5-cent bottle deposit to sports drinks and bottled water and require beverage companies to turn over unclaimed deposits to the state.
If the updated bottle bill were to pass, the amount of unclaimed deposits is estimated at $118 million. For parks and open space, the governor proposes an additional $80 million from the real estate transfer tax and $7 million from a variety of other sources. That would keep future spending at the level proposed for next year, a third less than the amount legislators agreed in 2007 was long overdue to meet the state's needs to protect open space, farmland and water supplies, build and maintain parks and revive waterfronts.
"Two years ago, the state was facing a very different financial outlook," said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the New York State budget division. "Clearly New York is facing a fiscal decline greater than any we've seen since the Great Depression and reductions were taken across all areas of state spending."
Environmental and parks groups argue that the savings generated from reducing Environmental Protection Fund spending would only be illusory. "These programs are much less expensive than the costs associated with environmental clean-ups, public health impacts and lost revenue from recreation and tourism," said Norreida Reyes, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic chapter, in a prepared statement.
In their reaction to the financial crisis, said Ottney of the Nature Conservancy, state officials appear to view open space, parks and other environmental programs as discretionary items. But, she said, "they are not options, they are necessities."
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.
The reports that financial analyst Jack Grubman engineered a $1 million contribution to the 92nd Street Y to help his twins gain admission to the Y's exclusive nursery school amazed people not familiar with New York's daunting competition for admissions to private schools. Such huge donations are hardly routine, even though most schools would probably welcome them. But some parents do go to great lengths to get their students admitted to private schools. And, once their child is admitted, they pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
The competition for admission can be intense, and certainly some status-conscious parents cherish exclusivity for its own sake. But simple demographics account for much of the competition, as residents of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side scramble for the limited amount of space in good schools close to home. Many parents see private schools as the only option in a city with a troubled public school system.
But these parents are not the only ones looking to private schools. Some educators, and politicians, believe private organizations and businesses hold the key to improving public education. One scenario envisions giving parents vouchers that they could use to help pay tuition at the public, private or religious school of their choice. Another, adopted most notably in Philadelphia, has the city school system hiring private companies in the hopes that they can rescue failing public schools. While parents blocked that idea in New York City, there are "charter schools" here that are privately operated but publicly funded.
Proponents say private schools, freed from bureaucracy, can function more effectively than public schools. And they argue that competition can shake up public schools and spur them to do better. Opponents counter that such efforts will strip public schools of desperately needed money and support and that private enterprises will be less accountable to the public. Further, they argue, there is little evidence that private schools really work better.
WHAT ARE PRIVATE SCHOOLS?
No state or city agency regulates private schools, so it is difficult to know exactly how many of them there are. A Chamber of Commerce report from the late 1990s said there are 500 private schools in the city. The report apparently does not include religious schools, which would at least double the total. The Archdiocese of New York, which encompasses the Bronx, Staten Island and some northern suburbs as well as Manhattan, runs 293 schools for about 111,500 students, while the Archdiocese of Brooklyn operates 176 schools for about 70,000 Brooklyn and Queens youngsters. There are perhaps 200 Jewish schools in the five boroughs and 14 Muslim ones, as well as an array of schools run by various Protestant denominations.
But the schools that most people associate with the term "New York City private school" are the 80 schools that belong to the New York State Association of Independent Schools. These schools generally charge high tuition and can be very selective. Some have a religious affiliation but still classify themselves as private rather than as parochial schools or yeshivas.
In 2001-02, about 2,250 children sought admission to private kindergartens in New York City, with families applying to an average of eight to 12 schools, according to Smart City Kids, a private company that helps families with school admissions. A recent article by Michael Powell in the Washington Post noted that there are, on average, at least 15 applicants for each available slot in New York City's elite private nursery schools. Grace Church reportedly had 180 applicants for 12 kindergarten spaces. As the Grubman case shows, parents are willing to go all out to improve those odds.
"Helping out with school applications greases the wheels of business and philanthropy in New York," wrote Stephanie Strom in the New York Times. Tuition at exclusive private schools in Manhattan ranges from $15,000 per school year at the pre-kindergarten level to $25,000 or higher in upper grades, exclusive of books, admissions and activity fees. Other charges can ratchet up those prices by an additional $20,000 or more. Scholarships and financial aid are available and ease the burden for up to 40 percent of students in private school.
Is it worth it? Most people would say it depends upon the school. Some favor a progressive curriculum, strong academics, arts programs and opportunities for sports and extra-curricular programs. The policies, philosophies and the quality of education at independent schools vary greatly. They tend to promise academic excellence, small class size, individualized attention and cultural diversity. But actual practice can sometimes veer far from that initial promise. For example, the high tuition tends to limit the diversity of the student population, and efforts to recruit more women and minorities as teachers and administrators have met with little success.
There are exceptions, however. The much-sought-after Brownstone School on the Upper West Side offers tuition on a sliding scale and a commitment to diversity that is reflected both in its staff and in the student population.
Academically, it can be difficult to compare an independent school with its public or parochial counterparts, simply because the independents are not accountable to anyone else. Schools are certified or re-certified once every 10 years by the New York State Association of Independent Schools. The association is not a state agency, but an independent non-profit organization, as is the Educational Records Bureau, which handles admissions testing for independent schools.
When U.S. News and World Report recently attempted to rank private schools throughout the country in terms of academic excellence, the state independent schools association urged its members not to participate. "To produce such a survey of private schools, as U.S. News and World Report proposes, requires our cooperation," the association said in a statement. "Without consistent responses to the same questions from every school, no credible report can go forward."
When the state withdrew its variance exempting private high school students from having to take state Regents' exams, private schools went to court but failed to overturn the ruling. Currently, New York requires Regents testing in 28 private high schools in the city, with plans to phase in testing elsewhere. Reports of how scores compare with public schools are not yet available.
A private voucher program designed to help children of low income families attend private schools does provide some basis for comparisons of public and private schools. (New York State does not have a publicly funded voucher program.) According to a study by Harvard University and Mathematica Policy Research at Princeton, parents of students who transferred from public to private schools cite safety, improved academic performance and school uniforms among their reasons for preferring private school.
However, the study found that overall there were no significant differences in standardized test scores between New York public and private school students. But it found a significant increase in reading and math scores for African American students who attended private schools for the full three years considered in the report. This would suggest that private school can be of genuine benefit to some students. The voucher program had no impact, however, on the test scores of Latino students.
The test scores may underestimate the effectiveness of private schools, since public schools are more likely to "teach to the test" than private schools. On the other hand, skeptics maintain, private schools benefit from being able to first select students and then kick out problem youngsters. And they note that parents who put their child in private school, whether through a voucher program or by paying the high tuition, may put more emphasis on education than some public school parents do.
STAFF AND ADMINISTRATION
One advantage private schools clearly offer is smaller classes. And the overall size of the school tends to be smaller too, a trait that city schools Chancellor Joel Klein hopes to replicate as he begins breaking large, failing high schools into smaller schools.
Yet teacher salaries at private schools average $33,000 to $38,000, below the $41,000 to $52,000 a year for parochial school teachers and the $49,000 to $57,000 paid to the average New York City public school teacher. The relatively low pay tends to result in the hiring of younger, less experienced teachers and a high faculty turnover.
So far, the worsening economy does not appear to have had much effect on private schools in New York. Smart City Kids says applications to high priced nursery schools, for example, rose between 2000-01 and 2001-02. But some fear escalating costs and the tighter economy could put more pressure on private school families to donate money and help with fundraising. Family income and social standing could become even more important in admissions policies. "The better private schools will compete for the philanthropic families," notes Catherine Hausman, author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools.
And some of these parents wield a lot of power. Most private schools are run by a head working in conjunction with a Board of Trustees, made up largely of parents. Those parents play a major role in school policy, sometimes to the ire of the school administration and other parents. Some, said James H. Carney, who conducts searches for people to head private schools, do not separate "institutional and personal needs" and use their seats on the board as "pulpits to get attention for their child." In one Manhattan private school, reports teacher Cheryl Nelson, nine out of 12 trustee families had children with significant learning issues. This characteristic of the trustees tended to result in coursework, new programs and grading policy being geared toward children with problems such as those experienced by their own youngsters.
While some of the hot competition for private schools is undeniably a search for status, others argue private schools really help children. Many children thrive in the private school environment, and parents extol the sense of community, safety and continuity such schools provide -- especially in these uncertain times.