Gotham Gazette

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Now More Than Ever, New York City Must Prioritize Investing More in Public Education

students with technology nyc schools hs

Schools need computers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

On November 20, a City Council hearing revealed that 60,000 students still lacked an internet-enabled device from the Department of Education (DOE) to participate in remote learning, which had begun more than eight months prior. That number of students lacking sufficient technology only grows when you include students who lack headphones, keyboards, or other critical pieces of technology that allow students to work in homes shared with other siblings and parents learning and working remotely.

This current situation is unacceptable and untenable, and it raises questions about how we ended up in this predicament in the first place. As a teacher for over two decades, I know firsthand that this current technology crisis, resulting in tens of thousands of students lacking access to a basic education, is in actuality the result of years of chronic under-funding of our schools — the pandemic has merely intensified the problems that have existed for years. Now more than ever, we must acknowledge the lack of investment that has been made and commit to dramatically increased funding to guarantee a world-class public education to all children in our city.

In the year 2020, it is inexcusable that schools were not already equipped with adequate technology for all students before this pandemic. Far too many schools have just a handful of laptop carts that get shuffled among classrooms so the few computers can be shared by all. Of those devices, many have not been maintained, running with slow operating speeds or with missing keys and cords.

Some students have never typed an essay before their first class in college, and many do not have the opportunity to develop the digital literacy skills that are expected of modern jobs. This neglect in basic computer and digital literacy, compounded with learning loss from the current technology gap, will undoubtedly have long-term consequences in skill development as well as later academic and job performance.

At my school, PS6 in Brooklyn, I’ve successfully fought for modern technology for my students, including a state-of-the-art Mac computer lab, so that students have the opportunity to be 21st-century learners and thinkers. The Common Core Standards themselves outline that elementary school students should be able to successfully “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources,” “make strategic use of digital express information,” and “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others” in order to meet college and career readiness standards.

Students cannot achieve these goals without access to technology. While I’m proud of expanding computer access at my school, the fact that I had to advocate so aggressively is a problem in and of itself — it should be the norm that all students have access to modern, high-quality technology since it would be impossible for them to accomplish today’s learning priorities without it.

Unfortunately, the chronic underfunding of our public schools extends beyond technology, and the pandemic has also highlighted other areas where we have underinvested, including in building infrastructure. At the beginning of this school year, dozens of classrooms were identified as unusable during the pandemic because they either had no windows or windows that only opened a few inches. Even now, many students and educators who are learning and teaching in-person are freezing in their classrooms, relying on open windows for ventilation since exhaust fans have not been replaced in years. Consistent and preventative repairs to the infrastructure of our school building is expensive, but allows for healthier, safer environments for those inside.

The fact that our public schools only have approximately 4.9 social workers, psychologists, and counselors for every 1,000 students, has also been amplified during this pandemic, as students cope with the trauma of COVID-19. The National Association of Social Workers recommends that there should be “one school social worker to each building serving up to 250 general education students” but also notes that a lower ratio, such as 1:50, should be used when “providing services to students with intensive needs.”

Given that 20.2% of the DOE’s student population receives special education services and considering the adverse experiences of the past year, school support staff to student ratios in New York City should undoubtedly fall well below the 1:250 threshold. New York City has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic and over the past nine months, our students have been through a range of experiences from confusion and uncertainty to grief and trauma.

With over 24,000 individuals lost to the virus and more than 1.5 million who have filed for unemployment in New York City, many of our students have been impacted directly and significantly by the pandemic. Students’ loved ones may have lost jobs, been hospitalized, or even died, resulting in significant trauma. We must ensure that there is adequate social-emotional care for our students, from increasing the number of mental health care professionals in every school to offering quality professional development to teachers on trauma-informed instructional practices. These measures cost money but are essential.

Lastly, we need to ensure that our class sizes are significantly reduced so that every student can receive the individualized attention that they deserve. In New York City, our average public school class size across all grades in the 2018-2019 school year was 26.4 students. Lowering this figure would result in improved learning outcomes for our students, as reducing class size is one of the “few educational strategies shown to increase learning for all students,” according to  the U.S. Department of Education.

Decreasing class sizes means hiring more teachers, but considering that the former Chair of the Council on Economic Advisers estimated that every dollar invested in reducing class size yields about $2 in benefits, any such expenses are well worth the cost.

Without a doubt, the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on the state’s economy, with officials estimating $59 billion of revenue shortfalls through 2022. But even within a restricted budget, we must show our priorities through the way we allocate money, and prioritizing education means that school funding should not be cut. To the contrary, it should be increased.

While the Department of Education saw hiring freezes and cuts to after-school programs, wraparound services, and teacher professional development, the city’s 5,500 school safety agents are still supported by an approximately $326 million budget, a 2% increase from the prior fiscal year. Shifting funding from the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division (which is in a multi-year process of being transferred to the DOE) to expanding technology access, updating our school buildings, increasing social-emotional care, and reducing class sizes would be a direct way to reduce harm as well as increase academic support for our city’s most marginalized students.

We can also increase funding for our public schools by issuing emergency government bonds and increasing taxes on New York’s highest earners. Similar actions taken after September 11, 2001 were successful in helping the city’s economy to recover. In August, Mayor de Blasio and other lawmakers asked Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature to authorize the city to borrow up to $5 billion to help close the city’s budget gaps. If granted, these funds could support a revitalization of the city’s education budget, investing now in our students as the future of our society.

Although we do not know exactly how long this public health crisis will last, we must take immediate action to fully fund our schools. Even under these challenging conditions, we must invest in the resources that every student needs to thrive. Universal access to quality education is not just a priority — it is a necessity.

Rita Joseph is an educator at PS6 Brooklyn, mother of four, and candidate for New York City Council in the 40th Council District (Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens). On Twitter @RitaJosephNYC.

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