Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Two Keys to Solving the City’s School Crisis

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Students at work (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The way our children are being educated has changed dramatically by this COVID-19 pandemic. As a working mom, it feels like I’ve been running a marathon and someone keeps moving the finish line. Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have thus far been unable to give working families a clear plan for how our children can safely return to school in the fall. 

The options offered by the de Blasio administration are to either continue with full-time remote learning or a hybrid model with two or three days of learning in the classroom and the others at home. Both options pose major challenges for working parents who can't afford child care, though the mayor also says the city is working on a supplemental child care plan.

All of this lacks essential details just weeks before the start of the school year.

One thing is clear, though: the pandemic has illuminated decades of inaction. New York City’s neglect to adequately fund education and address overcrowded schools is now exacerbating a public health crisis. COVID-19 may not go away for the next several years and we need to start coming up with better and sustainable solutions that will ensure our kids can continue to receive a high-quality education. It's about time we address key issues once and for all.

Short-term, deal with the remote learning model.

If parents are now required to fill the role of teachers when they pay hard-earned tax dollars for education in this city, then at the very least, they should be given a child-care subsidy in the short-term while the city works on more long-term solutions of smaller class sizes. It’s only equitable to reallocate tax dollars to working families, as they will either have to pay for a caregiver or tutor, or take time off of work to ensure their children stay on track. 

Each family with children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade should receive a voucher per child for the year that would cover the costs of child-care, and parents with older children would receive a voucher to hire in-person tutors. 

Long-term, the city must finally deal with overcrowded schools.

Overcrowding is not a new problem, but the neglect of politicians has now become an added layer to the public health crisis that stands in the way of our children receiving quality education, and will further perpetuate the growing inequality in the education system. 

According to estimates from Class Size Matters, we need about 100,000 more seats to fix overcrowding, and Queens is the borough with the most overcrowded schools. In order to truly eradicate poverty and build a more equitable city, we have to do everything we can to ensure high quality education for the 1.1 million kids in our school system.

We need to start by hiring more teachers. 

Class Size Matters proposed allocating $200 million of the $26.9 billion New York City Department of Education budget toward class size reduction by hiring 1,000 new teachers, starting in kindergarten through third grades. Not only is this the right thing to do, we should also explore using parochial schools or other spaces that could be leveraged into public school classrooms if needed, and advocate for the construction of new school campuses.  

According to Class Size Matters, class sizes in New York City schools are 15-30% larger than in other parts of the state, and the number of children in first through third grades in classes of 30 or more students has risen by nearly 3,000% since 2007.

Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone established an initiative that forced the city to cap all classes at 28 students but the DOE no longer follows those guidelines. Those guidelines must be revisited and enforced through legislation. Class size reduction means quality education for our children, and according to a United Federation of Teachers survey, 99% of New York City teachers believe class size reduction would be an effective reform to improve city schools as over 336,000 students are currently in classes of 30 or more.

As a mother of two I can say one thing is certain: this situation serves as a reminder of just how vitally important it is that parents, particularly mothers, have a place at the table to fight for our kids. New York City families cannot have a repeat of what happened in the spring, or this city will continue to see families exit. It will be interesting to see if the demographics of young families will change, but my hope is that we can create a solution that will help us retain families that build into our city.

The last thing we need is a generation of students falling behind, and the systemic inequalities that will grow as a result.

Felicia Kalan is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 22 in Queens. On Twitter @KalanforQNS.

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Diploma Privilege Now

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Taking the oath (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

James, whose name we’ve changed for confidentiality, is a recent law school graduate living in Brooklyn. Their partner had been the household’s sole income-earner — covering rent, food, and more — until she lost all employment during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not been able to get a new job. The couple now survives through unemployment checks, which could be reduced by 60% or more at the end of this month. James had to fund their law school education almost entirely through student loans, with payments due starting at the end of 2020. And they are still waiting to take the bar exam — the sole barrier between law school graduates and becoming licensed lawyers with all the responsibilities and job opportunities that come with such status. 

Thousands of other law school graduates are also waiting, because no graduate knows when a safe, equitable New York bar exam will next occur. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for everyone, law grads included. This week, 23 states will force thousands of law school graduates to risk their lives to take a test. New York has been a different kind of nightmare. In March, the New York Court of Appeals postponed the July bar exam to September. On July 16, the Court of Appeals informed these students that the bar exam needed to be delayed once again due to concerns over both in-person and online exams, only to announce just days later, it will hold an online exam in October.

The uncertainty surrounding the New York bar exam has been devastating. After the March news, thousands of job offers were delayed or revoked until the September exam date, leaving students without salaries and health insurance, and with far more uncertainty and insecurity. Unemployed graduates were left to job hunt during an unprecedented pandemic. The lack of clarity for recent graduates has left many in limbo, wondering how or when they can pay for rent, food, health expenses, or their pending debt from law school. It also further exacerbates mental health inequities in a field long known for widespread depression and mental health stigma.

The only compassionate and equitable option for New York’s future lawyers right now is diploma privilege.  

Under diploma privilege, applicants can be admitted to the bar without taking a bar exam but following successfully graduating from law school and satisfying certain other requirements like passing the New York Law Exam and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam and completing a “character and fitness” assessment. 

Many have suggested alternatives to the in-person bar exam: Why not prepare an online bar exam? Why can’t law graduates just receive provisional licensure until the next bar exam in February 2021?

While we respect the New York Bar’s awareness of the risks an in-person exam currently poses, the announced or proposed alternatives are neither sufficient nor equitable. Online exams disadvantage test-takers lacking stable internet access — what if applicants are kicked out mid-exam due to unreliable internet? — and risk test-takers’ data privacy. Lawyers and disabled rights advocates are also concerned online exams will likely not grant the flexibility needed to make the exam truly accessible. Screen-related health and accessibility issues and the application window already being closed for accommodations means that currently-granted accommodations may not work for the October exam. Provisional licensure — temporary licensure until the bar exam is offered — furthers uncertainty for applicants and employers alike. It requires employers, such as already over-stretched legal services providers, to reduce supervising attorneys’ caseloads to supervise provisional licensees. Plus, the bar exam takes a long time to prepare for. By requiring applicants to take the bar exam in some unspecified future, provisional licensure disproportionately and negatively harms applicants who cannot obtain legal employment or take time off from work for full-time study. 

The exam is also an equity issue. For instance, in-person exams risk harming applicants who live in multi-generational homes or live with immunocompromised family members. United for Diploma Privilege - NY (UDPNY) surveys have shown these applicants are more likely to be women and/or Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). But if New York adopts the National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE) guidelines, the online exam would still disproportionately harm disabled applicants by requiring applicants requiring accommodations to complete their exams in person. New York legal leadership claims to care about diversity, inclusion, and lawyer mental health and well-being. Yet all of these options disproportionately harm BIPOC, low income, disabled, first-generation, and chronically ill bar applicants — the people the bar exam was already most inaccessible to. 

Diploma privilege is neither a radical nor a new idea. Wisconsin has long offered diploma privilege, with noted beneficiaries including the NCBE’s president, Judith A. Gundersen. Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Louisiana have granted diploma privilege to students from ABA-accredited law schools in response to COVID-19. And measures to pass diploma privilege in New York have popular support from graduates, local legal employers and unions, and now, every law school dean in New York.

There are two paths to diploma privilege in New York. The Court of Appeals could still offer diploma privilege to all graduates from ABA-accredited law schools rather than insisting upon an unproven online exam. If it makes the equitable decision to extend diploma privilege, the Court could subsequently provide important regulations to ensure these graduates would receive additional training through its preexisting Continued Legal Education programs.

Alternatively, State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon are sponsoring a bill to license J.D. graduates from ABA-accredited schools who otherwise satisfy the requirements of the New York Bar. This bill would provide immediate, necessary relief to thousands of recent graduates. 

Diploma privilege is an equitable and sound solution that would provide advantages to recent law school graduates and New York State overall. Graduates would receive needed licensure while New York can simultaneously strengthen its legal system with the inclusion of competent, energized young lawyers. An online exam does not ensure equity. We can’t pretend things are still business as usual in any field, law included. More than ever, New York needs diploma privilege now.  

Winn Periyasamy, MPH, is a policy advocate, writer, and second year law student at Fordham Law School. Mary Kate Cunningham is a recent graduate from Fordham Law School and a member of United for Diploma Privilege - New York. On Twitter: @wperiyasamy & @MKCunningham91. Thanks to Matthew Cortland, Kathy Flaherty and Alex Petkanas for their feedback in writing this piece.

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What Those Targeting the SHSAT Don’t Really Understand About the Specialized High School Picture

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Mayor de Blasio announces specialized high school plans (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

One of the most controversial topics in the New York City public education system is the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and its use as the sole tool for admission to the city’s eight premier STEM-oriented specialized high schools. There has always been a robust debate about the admissions process, because while the New York City public schools are predominantly African-American and Latino (about 68% of students), these populations represent only 10.4% of the students admitted to the specialized high schools.

As an African-American student and recent graduate of one of these specialized high schools, Brooklyn Technical High School, it pains me to see my peers and others writing op-eds using severely misguided arguments in opposition to the test.

While we must solve the lack of racial diversity in the specialized high school system, abolishing the test is not the right way to do it, for several reasons.

As an African-American student at and now graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, I of course am disheartened by the low admission rate of Black and Latino students. It is something I noticed as soon as I entered freshman year, especially coming from Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights, my middle school where almost everyone looked like me. So during my four years in high school, I decided to take action to help remedy the issue.

I participated as part of the Department of Education’s Specialized High School Outreach team, where hundreds of students come to gain information about the city’s eight specialized high schools and the SHSAT. I offered a student perspective of the specialized high school experience, advised students about preparing for the SHSAT, and counseled them about what to expect on test day.

Perhaps most significantly, my father and I founded a tutoring program designed to prepare underserved middle school students for the SHSAT in my home neighborhood of Southeast Queens. It was during this program where I saw so clearly that students simply weren’t receiving adequate tools to succeed from the New York City public school system. Throughout the course of this tutoring program, I have had the opportunity to interact with dozens of students. Ultimately, I have been impressed with their enthusiasm and engagement, yet frustrated by the students’ inadequate preparation — many did not have simple multiplication and division skills.

It upsets me that all of these students have ample potential, but they don’t stand a chance during the specialized high school admissions test due to the lack of strength in curriculum and pedagogy at their elementary and middle schools. It became quite apparent to me that the mayor and other anti-SHSAT officials have used the test as a scapegoat for the lack of diversity in the specialized high school system, rather than aiming to reform the weak learning environments, standards, and curriculum in the city’s public elementary and middle schools.

Moreover, it appears that many of these officials have simply dismissed the drastic consequences of abolishing the test. The SHSAT itself offers the opportunity for a standard, relatively unbiased opportunity across the city, with each student interested in specialized high school admission taking the same exact test in a given year. If the SHSAT is abolished, the main tool of admission will be students’ middle school grade point averages (GPAs).

We know every student can’t take nearly the same exact classes and have all teachers across the city teach similar curriculum and grade the same exact way. In reality, it is pretty easy to get an ‘A’ in an arithmetic class passed off as something more challenging, and equally easy to get a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ in a very challenging class where there may even be significant grade deflation. Sending a student with straight A’s in fairly easy classes that inflate grades to a specialized high school would be extremely unfair and discouraging to students who have challenged themselves with difficult classes and didn’t get the grades they desired.

It would also be doing these particular straight-A students a disservice to send them to specialized high schools, where the workload is much more difficult and requires prior mastery of fairly difficult topics (topics that are covered on the SHSAT). The SHSAT allows schools to test students’ abilities in subjects, particularly math and English language arts, that are imperative to have a strong foundation in before entering a specialized high school. The pace is fast at the specialized high schools, meaning the importance of a solid foundation in subjects across the board is essential.

There’s also a misleading narrative out there about the racial demographics of the specialized high school system. As I mentioned, it was quite easy to notice how many people didn’t look like me during my time at Brooklyn Technical High School.

But, I have never in my academic career felt that my school was any less of a melting pot than the city it resides in. Part of why there is such a popular misconception about the demographics of the specialized high schools is because of the misleading statistic that the schools are 60% Asian. Although this statistic is broadly accurate, it becomes significantly less relevant to the larger discussion when you realize the different demographics that are included in that daunting number. 

For example, I’ve met and been friends with many students from Bangladesh, Korea, India, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and beyond, all of which are covered in the category of Asian and the 60% number so often thrown around. The reality here is indicative of the lack of nuance in the overall discussion around the specialized high schools, the test, and diversity.

In all, the lack of Black and Latino students in specialized high schools is a problem that absolutely needs to be addressed, but abolishing the SHSAT is the wrong way of going about it. The mayor and schools chancellor need to stop using the test as a scapegoat for their inadequacies in providing a strong education to elementary and middle school students throughout New York City.

Amir Davis is a 2020 Brooklyn Tech graduate who will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

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A Promising New Plan to Save New York City Public Housing

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NYCHA needs to be saved (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The New York City Housing Authority is putting forward a promising new plan to preserve each public housing unit in its portfolio. Mayor Bill de Blasio, and previous mayors, have put forward multiple plans intended to save NYCHA, but this one bears attention and support because with sufficient community input and political support, it has a real chance of success. 

For more than half-a-million renters in New York City — a city within the city — public housing has provided reliable affordability during these tumultuous times. About 1.2 million renter households in New York City have lost income due to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and many face eviction without federal aid, but not in public housing. For public housing residents, rents are adjusted to offset lost income. This protection against income volatility is invaluable for low-income renters. And for many, it is the reason why they tolerate the frustrations of living in public housing, such as leaking pipes, heat outages, mold, and lead paint.

But New York City’s public housing, under the watch of a federal monitor, is at risk with a mounting backlog of capital repairs most recently estimated at $40 billion. To address this crisis, NYCHA is exploring an innovative new strategy to complete the preservation of its entire approximately 175,000-unit portfolio. 

To date, NYCHA’s preservation plans have centered on leveraging public-private partnerships to raise revenue through PACT (NYCHA’s version of HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program), as well as infill development and the sale of air rights. More than 60,000 units and $24 billion are slated to move forward under these programs but this falls far short of raising the $40 billion needed to fully address NYCHA’s rehabilitation needs. But until now, no credible plan had been put forward to preserve the remaining, approximately 110,000 units of public housing in need of repairs across the five boroughs. 

NYCHA’s new strategy to create a Public Housing Preservation Trust is still at the early stages of crafting, but it provides the vision for creating a bold and comprehensive approach to financing and preservation, while keeping intact protections for residents. It cleverly uses HUD’s own disposition rules to identify a financing solution.

The plan centers on unlocking Tenant Protection Vouchers, which would be triggered through disposition, and allow higher funding levels. For the many residents and advocates who want to keep public housing in public control, they will be relieved that disposition will be made to a new publicly-controlled entity — the NYCHA Preservation Trust. This new entity will borrow against federal rent subsidies to finance repairs. It will also contract management back to NYCHA, retaining its unionized workforce, and it will have the ability to hire private sector contractors to help make repairs.

A solution for our era of climate change, it also banks on energy savings and anticipates the creation of a significant number of green jobs. 

In this new strategy, there are many elements that will appeal to residents, advocates, and elected officials concerned about long-term affordability, tenant protections, and the urgency of needed repairs. And since the plan is not set in stone, there are many aspects that can be further developed to reflect their concerns and aspirations.

To succeed, however, this strategy needs broad public support. It will need endorsement from NYCHA residents, which the housing authority should seek for any major policy change. NYCHA must follow through with robust resident engagement. 

The plan will also need state and federal action. The New York State Legislature, working with Governor Cuomo, will need to pass legislation to create a state-chartered public benefit corporation, similar to the School Construction Authority. The state should use this opportunity to improve oversight and also to ensure formal resident representation on the board of the new entity with decision-making power.

This new trust will be responsible for the preservation of a portion of New York City’s invaluable public housing stock, the improvement of its living conditions to meet federal standards, and its long-term affordability. The new structure will need to include reforms and improved accountability. Not all of NYCHA’s past mismanagement and compliance failures can be blamed on lack of funding and changes are necessary. 

At the federal level there are two critical changes needed for this plan to work. The first is that HUD must change its policy on issuing Tenant Protection Vouchers to units only after they pass inspection for compliance with federal standards. To raise financing for needed repairs, the rental assistance must flow first. If the federal government is not going to fund repairs directly through the public housing capital fund, then they must allow NYCHA this flexibility. 

Finally, Congress must significantly increase appropriations for Tenant Protection Vouchers to support this plan. This will be less costly than fully funding the public housing capital budget so it is not unrealistic to expect some bipartisan appeal to this approach.

While NYCHA has more work to do to refine this strategy and gain support over the next months, now is exactly the time when public investment in housing matters most. As a city, we must value and prioritize the preservation of our public housing. Like our public schools, public libraries, and our public parks, public housing is a critical component of our community infrastructure. NYCHA’s proposal, which complements its PACT initiative, offers a chance to preserve public housing while reimagining the public’s role in this vitally needed housing.

Rachel Fee is Executive Director of the New York Housing Conference. On Twitter @RachelFeeNYHC & @theNYHC.

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Neither Quality Nor Quantity: Mayor De Blasio’s Unworkable School Reopening Plan

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Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Many of my colleagues are discussing whether or not it’s safe to go back to school buildings in New York City. Will buildings that were never clean before become clean now? Will buildings that were never properly ventilated suddenly become state of the art? Will children and teenagers observe social distancing in and out of school? I’ll leave all that to your imagination and focus mostly on the pedagogical. 

It’s not hard to explain the best possible way to administer education. I know well, because I’ve been doing it for decades. Face-to-face instruction is optimal. I can give immediate oral and written feedback. My students can work with one another in pairs or other small groupings to reinforce whatever we’re learning. You never know what will happen, every day is different, and it’s the best job there is.

Of course, things are different now. We can’t simply go back this September to where we were last September because we all know the virus is still here and can surge back. We need only look south to Florida, to Texas, and elsewhere to see what will happen if we’re careless. 

This year, we’re looking at what the mayor calls a hybrid school model—partly remote and partly in-person. At first blush, this looks like a reasonable compromise. When you look under the hood, though, there are a lot of major questions. For example, if I go in on Monday and teach 20-50% of my students, what are my other 50-80% going to be doing? Mayor de Blasio has absolutely no answer, expecting individual schools to perform miracles.

I once thought they’d be viewing my live lesson through video feed, but that doesn’t appear viable. Even if it were, how would the students interact? Would the live students see those online? Could they communicate? How would I turn my attention from one group to the other? 

Instead, I’d be meeting with a group of up to 12 students, all masked and socially distanced. This would cramp my style -- and that of most teachers -- quite a bit. I’m accustomed to moving around the room while students are working, watching what they’re doing. I offer tips on work, admonitions to wake up, and whatever falls in between. I’m always watching. I can’t do that from behind the teacher desk.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about where the state wants that teacher desk. On page 29 of recently-released New York State Education Department guidelines, it says:

Turn desks (including teachers) to face in the same direction rather than facing each other to reduce transmission caused by virus-containing droplets (e.g., from talking, coughing, sneezing); 

Evidently, either the students are now looking at the back of my head, or I’m looking at the backs of theirs. I’d probably opt for the latter so as to have a minimum idea of what’s going on. Talking face to face is specifically discouraged here. Add that to the Black Mirror atmosphere of masks and social distancing, the already draconian restrictions on social interaction, and you have a pretty depressing little classroom. I don’t see how this meets anyone’s social and emotional needs, let alone their educational needs. 

Fortunately, in 50-80% of the cases, students will be in online classes and remote learning. While we were thrown into this with neither training nor support in April, we’re better at it now. We could be even better at it if the city were to offer us adequate support and training. 

It’s paramount that students show us their faces during online classes. I don’t know whether or not that cute puppy picture in the digital classroom represents a student paying attention, taking a nap, or walking to the corner to get coffee. I don’t know whether those answers in the chat are being written by my student, by their friend, or by paid tutors who don’t actually care whether or not my student learns anything. 

The city could invest in programs that support online learning. We should find programs that allow us to not only watch the students working in real time, see the work, and also to detect plagiarism. Nothing will be perfect, but that would be a great help. In normal times, I have my students do most of their writing in class because I’m weary of reading identical essays or being presented with pieces by hack writers on the internet. 

The fact is that right now I can do a lot more for my students in a remote class than in the bizarre live setting being proposed by the mayor and the chancellor. I can see them all, they can all see me, and we can all interact online. With training, we can enable groups and pairs and do much better assessments.

Let’s use the buildings sparingly to support students (and teachers) who don’t have a quiet or safe place to work. When in-person counseling or support is absolutely necessary, let’s bring in students in groups so small we don’t have to indulge in ridiculous charades approximating classrooms. 

To do best by our students at this time, we need to cut past appearances, and consider the best education we can give students while still keeping them (and staff) safe. We need to include them all, rather than teaching some and hoping others will figure out what we did on days they were out. Let’s drop the unworkable and preposterous hybrid idea, and give the best remote experience possible to our students for the next few months.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School, and a UFT executive committee member. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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Police and Protest: 1992 and Today

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NYPD officers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

On September 16, 1992, roughly 10,000 demonstrators filled City Hall Park in a protest over police accountability. Marching around the park with banners and signs, they expressed their anger at New York City Mayor David Dinkins. After less than an hour, the protesters broke through the barricades around the park, storming the steps of City Hall itself, while another group of protesters filled Murray Street to listen to speakers who urged on the crowd.

A short while later, approximately 2,000 protesters marched onto, and occupied, the Brooklyn Bridge. They stopped traffic in both directions and assaulted members of the press trying to cover the story. 

In stark contrast to the George Floyd demonstrations, there were no mass arrests that September day. No officers in riot gear “kettled” the crowd before storming them. There was no outburst of furious baton-swinging. No shower of tear gas or rubber bullets. 

What was it that made this protest different? How do we explain the restraint, even the sympathy, with which the NYPD confronted the protesters?

The protesters were police officers.

The demonstration that took place that September was organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association after Mayor Dinkins proposed an all-civilian police misconduct review board. Citizen-activists had been demanding a civilian review board to exercise police oversight since the 1940s. Though pressure mounted after each incident of police brutality—from the 1943 shooting of Robert Bandy to the killing of James Powell in 1964—the PBA fought off complete civilian oversight. When Mayor Lindsay modified the existing police-controlled review board in 1966 so that civilian appointees would hold the power, the PBA launched a successful campaign to defeat the changes through fear-mongering and a ballot referendum.

With Dinkins’ proposal, members of the NYPD were confronted with the real possibility of the civilian oversight and accountability they had so long resisted. 

Police unions responded as they always had—by trying to kill the reform and maintain their power. The 10,000 off-duty police officers who demonstrated in lower Manhattan that September 1992 day was a show of force, a message that the city could have a review board or a police force, but not both. As the signs some officers were carrying that day threatened, there might be “No police!” if they did not get the “justice” they demanded.

Though Mayor Dinkins argued that the protest proved the need for civilian oversight, other prominent leaders seemed unconcerned. Despite demonstrators who were drinking and mounting cars, as well as uniformed officers who made little attempt to control the crowd, “law and order” advocates were largely silent. They did not decry the actions of protesters or proclaim that lawlessness was taking over the city. Indeed, mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor whose future administration would fiercely promote “zero tolerance” policing, took part in the protest himself. Philip Caruso, the PBA president, called for understanding the protesters’ actions. Though Caruso conceded “the emotional level did get a little out of control,” he pointed out that “sometimes if emotionalism is not evoked publicly, the responsible elements of the community do not listen.”

The police department’s contrasting responses to the 1992 PBA protest and the recent Black Lives Matter protests are revealing. Rhetoric to the contrary, the NYPD’s crackdown on protesters last month was not about maintaining public safety. It was—like the PBA protest of 1992—about power and control. Attacks on protesters were made in the same spirit with which police lashed out against a civilian review board in 1992. It was an assertion that citizens dare not question the police, nor demand changes. You either take policing as it is, or you might not get it at all. 

This sense of entitlement to absolute authority is part of the broader problem of police culture in New York City and the United States. It is a culture that resists public accountability and rejects  the legitimacy of external oversight. It is embodied in the “No Justice, No Police” signs that off-duty NYPD members carried that day in 1992, in the “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” chants heard from St. Louis police while citizens protested the not-guilty verdict in the 2011 police killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, and in bumper stickers emblazoned with the ultimatum “If you don’t like us, don’t call us.”

The 1992 anti-oversight protests were not an aberration, as the New York City PBA has continued to resist accountability and oversight. In 2013, in an attempt to end racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing, the New York City Council passed two accountability measures collectively known as the Community Safety Act. The PBA vehemently opposed the new laws, which were passed over vetoes by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and established an independent inspector general for the NYPD and made it possible for individual citizens to sue the department for discrimination. The union subsequently sued the City Council to overturn the laws while also suing to overturn a 2013 federal court decision that ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional.

Throughout the last decade the PBA also repeatedly invoked Civil Rights Law 50-a to restrict public access to body camera footage and the outcomes of administrative trials. Though filing lawsuits and expansively interpreting legal codes may be tactically different from the 1992 City Hall protest, resisting oversight has remained the strategy.

In addition to taking legal action the PBA has continued to operate in the political arena to forestall oversight. In 2019 the PBA launched a “vote no” offensive against a series of ballot measures designed to strengthen the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Under the proposed changes police commissioners would be required to submit an explanation to the CCRB if the commissioner rejected the board’s disciplinary recommendations. As part of their campaign against the new accountability measures the PBA stoked fears over rising crime, claiming the new accountability measures “will make the city less safe.” In doing so, the union drew on a rhetorical pattern linking the potential for increased crime with increased oversight. Speaking to the New York Times in 1992 about the Dinkins administration’s reform efforts, PBA president Phillip Caruso predicted “crime is going to get worse, the streets will become less safe than they are.” Such rhetoric represents another tactic in the fight to delegitimize oversight and accountability.

There has been significant debate in the last few weeks over whether problems in policing reflect a few “bad apples” or a more deeply rooted, flawed system. The contrasting ways police have responded to protests and proposals over their authority shed light on the systemic problems. Dismantling a culture that demands unlimited authority and resists virtually all oversight is necessary if we are ever to move toward a more equitable system of justice in this country.

Kenneth M. Donovan is a PhD student at Stony Brook University and United States history teacher at Huntington High School.

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Surveillance and the City: Cuomo’s Covid Security Theater

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Governor Cuomo headed to Georgia (photo: governor's office)

For years, travelers have complained about security theater at our airports. Even as we’re forced to do everything short of strip naked for TSA agents, people are still able to sneak guns, grenades, and even the occasional venomous snake onto planes. It feels as if the point of the multi-million-dollar investment in mass screening is to give the illusion of safety, not safety itself. And so is the case with New York’s newest form of airport surveillance: COVID-19 registration.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, New Yorkers were eyed warily by other states as nothing short of 21st century plague carriers. Some states went so far as to call in the National Guard to monitor for New York license plates and even threaten to close down the border itself. But now that New York is on the far side of the first wave, the tables have turned, and now New York is looking at out-of-state travelers with suspicion.

The threat of interstate COVID-19 transmission is real, but New York’s screening offers only a false sense of security. Governor Cuomo’s new order requires those flying in from dozens of states to register with New York state government or face a $2,000 fine. Those arriving in cars, trains, and busses also must register, though with no one greeting them at arrival to ask and no clear penalty for failing to do so. And if either set of travelers violate the 14-day mandatory quarantine, they face a $10,000 fine.

While the state has doubled down on airport travelers, there is no plan to track other visitors. Many of those driving into the state don’t even know about the requirement. Even Governor Cuomo himself acknowledged that there is no enforcement mechanism and that no fines had been handed out as of July 14.

A law with no clear enforcement mechanism creates the risk of selective enforcement, often at the expense of New Yorkers of color and other over-policed communities. Recent efforts to add airport “enforcement teams” is more about optics than public health, as there is still no plan for reaching other travelers. Even worse, once this data is collected, it just sits in government databases, with no actual follow-up by public health officials.

But just because public health authorities seem to have no interest in using this data, that doesn’t mean collecting it is harmless. Whether its abuse by law enforcement, other government agencies, or hackers, travelers can’t know how their data might be abused. Cuomo’s rushed executive order answers none of the questions that lawmakers would address through the legislative process. The end result is this: sloppy executive orders with poor enforcement mechanisms and expansive ambiguity.

Targeting out-of-staters may be a good soundbite, but it’s not smart policy. New York still has COVID-19 community transmission, spreading the virus at July 4th parties and day cares. Blaming travelers ignores that New Yorkers aren’t doing enough to protect our state: wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and washing our hands. We don’t need fines, we need clearer guidance and better role models from Albany.

None of that is coming from Governor Cuomo, who recently flew to Georgia’s COVID hotspot. Cuomo could have chosen to register and show New Yorkers that he’s willing to practice what he preaches. Instead he flew a charter flight and cited a technicality to avoid his own order -- and even failed at times to wear a mask while near other people at a press event. Technically, the governor doesn’t need to register and quarantine, since he went for less than a day, but that’s a detail that isn’t grounded in the science behind the order and that many of those threatened with fines at our airport will never know. 

The truth is that the governor never needed to get on that plane at all. He could have done what millions of New Yorkers (himself included) do every day, and hop on a call or video chat instead. But for the governor who has constantly craved good press in these terrible times, it’s just another example of public health taking a back seat to public relations. This is going to be a long, drawn-out crisis, and perhaps the only thing that will remain constant is the need to adopt COVID-19 policies based in science, not politics.

Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly “Surveillance and the City” column at Gotham Gazette. Caroline Magee is a rising third-year student at Emory University School of Law and a civil rights intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act at 30: How Far We’ve Come and What’s Next


Activists call for accessible transit (photo: @CID_NYLevel)

Thirty years ago we fought for the passage of our civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We celebrate the ADA and what it has helped us achieve. Yet, we know that we still have work to do. Exclusion, discrimination, and inequality are built into every system that affects us and we are more severely affected if we are also Black, Latino, Asian-American, or LGBTQ. We look forward to welcoming the next generation of advocates, born since passage of the ADA. We encourage them to join us in ensuring the full realization of disability rights and justice in the next 30 years.

The Disability Rights and Justice movement, including independent living centers, fought hard for changes to barriers in our daily lives. We’ve won a lot since the ADA was passed in 1990. But, to achieve meaningful change, and to protect our rights we must continue the struggle.

Our actions since 1990 led to: 

Better access to websites for voter registration and absentee ballots for people who are blind and more accessible polling sites and machines for people with all kinds of disabilities. 

Requiring hospitals to provide American Sign Language Interpreters for patients who are Deaf. 

Requiring that city homeless shelters come into compliance with the ADA. 

Including people with disabilities in planning for and responses to disasters.

Requirements for landlords to lower elevator buttons, install braille, add ramps, etc. for tenants with disabilities. 

Accommodating people with disabilities at movie theaters, theaters, and public attractions. 

A fair shake for students with disabilities in a mainstream classroom or when taking college or graduate school exams.

Safer street crossings when curb cuts are put in and comply with the law. 

People with disabilities having lives full of meaning in the community upon leaving institutions.

Employers leveling the playing field at work by providing necessary tools (a different desk, screen reader for the computer, etc.).

But, resistance to change persists. As new laws, regulations, and programs are created, we still see discrimination built into their fabric. And, many times, the issues that affect our lives are still invisible to others.

More changes need to be made. Accessible absentee ballots must work for everyone with a disability; more accessible and affordable housing would help bring people out of shelters and institutions to live in their communities; more elevator access in subways means more people with disabilities can get and keep employment; new buildings complying with ADA standards mean more people with disabilities can get services they need, work and participate in civic life; and better access to appropriate health care means better outcomes and a healthier population. We can ensure that children with disabilities are not denied full services to support learning in the classroom. We must end police killings of Black and Latino people with disabilities and using police to respond to mental health crises.  

Have we achieved a great deal? Yes. Can we do more? We must. We are tired but tireless. We at Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY) will continue to advocate for and work with people with disabilities, and we are fortunate that we have allies to aid us along the way. So today we say happy birthday ADA. You’ve grown up, but you still have a lot of growing to do and a new generation to help make it happen.

Susan Dooha is executive director of Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY). On Twitter @CID_NY.

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To Honor Essential Workers, Congress Must Save Public Transit

honor essential

Nurses and other essential workers need public transit (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

I am a lifelong New Yorker and public transit rider. In March, when so many of my friends, family, and neighbors stopped commuting, I kept traveling to work. I depend on a bus and two subways to get from my Queens home to the East Side of Manhattan hospital where I’m a pharmacist. 

Like most people, I had never heard of “essential workers” before COVID-19. Everyone I knew got up and went to work regardless of what job they had. And thankfully, many I know are still employed, though working from home. I found out that being an essential worker, besides fighting COVID directly, meant still having to commute while others sheltered at home.

As a commuter during COVID, I have depended on transit more than ever. Without a car, the bus and subways were my lifeline. Without public transit, I could not reach nor serve my patients. More this year than ever, I need reliable service. Especially when service was reduced for months, any delay became magnified and more frustrating than before. 

I am so grateful for the transit workers who showed up so that I could show up too. It has been heartrending to hear of the losses among bus drivers, train operators and conductors. I don’t always think of myself as a hero just because I work in a hospital during a pandemic. But if I am one, the people getting me there every day despite everything are certainly heroes as well.

Now, as I watch terrified while COVID cases rise around the country, I also fear for my commute here in New York. I know firsthand how many fewer people have been commuting through the pandemic. I understand how much less money the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has from fares, and from tolls and taxes as well.

In March, New York’s Congressional leaders brought home $3.9 billion to keep trains and buses running through the worst of the pandemic in New York. But that money is nearly gone. The MTA is back to normal service and doing a lot more cleaning, still with relatively little money coming in. To avoid huge cuts next month, the agency needs another $3.9 billion.

In May, New York’s members in the House of Representatives put $3.9 billion for the MTA in the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t taken up the bill. With COVID worsening nationwide, it now looks like another aid bill will start moving through the Senate soon. Congress must again take care of the MTA and people like me who depend on it.

Without more aid, the MTA will soon be short half the money it needs on a monthly basis. With a $17 billion annual budget, it could soon face a gap of $650 million each month. That’s a lot of trains and buses that would have to stop running.

To put it into perspective, the MTA’s last major cuts came in 2010 to save $400 million over one year. Today’s cuts could be 20 times larger than that. Last time, the MTA cut the V and W trains and cut or reduced service on 110 bus lines. In a report from 2011, they found that 15% of riders were inconvenienced by the cuts. A decade later, bus ridership had dropped 25%.

Cuts 20 times larger than those of 2010 could mean entire subway trunk lines shut down. The Riders Alliance recently produced a subway map with half the lines removed. Even if it’s not quite that bad, we could be waiting 20 to 30 minutes for trains during much of the day. Crowding would be very dangerous. Fares could rise by several dollars even as service is far worse. 

Life as we know it in New York would be devastated if Congress does not rescue the MTA. We have already known so much unprecedented hardship this year. For essential workers like me, it is unimaginable what a cruel blow to the infrastructure we depend on would mean after what we’ve already experienced on the frontlines of COVID. It also makes me worry about some of our patients, who rely on public transportation to get to their medical care. The MTA cut would be another barrier for them to overcome to stay healthy.

Our influential leaders in Congress must stand up for us. We need our New York leaders in the House and the Senate to speak up now more than ever. They must tell their colleagues how letting New York’s transit system collapse would destroy our recovery and bring the nation down with us. Leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries -- and the entire New York delegation -- must use the great power they’ve built in Washington to save the commutes of millions back home in New York City.

Suk-Yee Wong is a pharmacist who lives in Queens and works in Manhattan.

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Congress Returns; New York’s Future Hangs in the Balance

us capitol

The U.S. Capitol (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

With Congress back in Washington, D.C., New Yorkers have a big stake in the outcome of the next federal economic stimulus package. 

No Clear Signals on New Aid to State and Local Government
Serious negotiations are finally starting on an aid program to help an American economy devastated by the coronavirus recession. Two months have elapsed since the Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion aid package that included $1 trillion in support for state and local government, territories, and tribal nations across the country. The Republicans in the Senate are finally responding and are anticipated to introduce a bill soon.  

The unique $600 a week supplement to regular unemployment insurance benefits that has aided tens of millions of Americans and shored up consumer spending expires on July 31, and in some states like New York, on July 26. While discussions are underway about an extension of some kind, there is considerable conservative opposition to continuing that generous benefit level.

With the election just a few months away, I cannot imagine there will be another stimulus package beyond the next one that is enacted before the November election (barring a national economic collapse), so whatever gets passed now will have to last many months. 

New York State and City Have Enormous Budget Deficits
New York State, New York City, and the MTA all have immense budget deficits and need major help. The New York State government, responding to the plunging economy, adopted a budget in April with $10 billion in spending cutbacks, but has yet to implement most of that plan. The State Division of the Budget’s July 8 update says final details on cutbacks will be developed and notice given to service providers once the federal package is known

The MTA is on the Brink of a “Four Alarm Fire” Crisis
The MTA is the most desperate of these three huge New York governmental sectors. In April subway ridership was down 95% as the lockdown began, and even last week was down 80% from normal, according to a July newsletter from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The MTA has described its problems as a “four-alarm fire.” Despite receiving $3.8 billion in the first round of Congressional support, it says it needs another $3.9 billion for the remainder of 2020, and shortfalls of $4.5-$8.7 billion remain through the end of 2021. The MTA will have little choice but to scale back some of its ambitious capital expansion plans, and may have to divert new tax revenue in a “lockbox” to help pay for those projects instead toward rescuing the operating system. If the MTA cannot get major new support from Congress, the state and the city will have to step up to help the agency as a last resort. The state authorized the MTA to borrow money to prop up its budget, but the agency is in such bad shape it may not be able to borrow the billions it needs and the state may have to borrow money on its behalf.

New York’s Lockdown Losses Are Staggering
The lockdown of the economy in New York State brought a staggering loss of 1.8 million jobs, including 900,000 in New York City, between February and April. Recovery has been slow and painful. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics update for New York, released July 17, showed the state regained about 300,000 jobs in June, after gaining about 100,000 jobs in May. Although the economy was regaining jobs, unemployment rates in New York rose in June because more New Yorkers re-entered the labor force than found work. The unemployment rate in the state rose from 14.7% in May to 15.4% in June, and the unemployment rate in the City rose from 18.3% in May to 20.4% in June.

2.6 million New Yorkers were on unemployment benefits at the end of June. Governor Cuomo remains cautious in allowing New York City to reopen, but New York’s slow reopening may end up with the state in a better position than other parts of the country where the coronavirus is exploding and parts of the economy are reclosing.

New York Has Taken Some Intermediate Actions to Address the Deficit
New York took limited action this spring to address its financial problems while waiting for help. The New York State Comptroller’s Office reported that state tax receipts were down 17% in June 2020 compared to June 2019. The State Division of the Budget, in the July 8 report cited above, said it will have withheld about $1.2 billion in local aid through early July, about half the rate necessary to achieve the full spending cuts in the adopted budget.

Governor Cuomo, during his daily briefings on the coronavirus this spring, said local aid cutbacks could reach 20% in education, 20% to hospitals, and 20% for other local government services that would imperil first responders, absent new federal support. The state budget also provided for $2 billion in state agency cutbacks.

New York’s Choices: Slash the Budget or Borrow
Whatever happens in Washington in the next several weeks, New York will face major challenges. New York doesn’t just face a $10 billion deficit this year, it faces a projected $8 billion deficit next year and continued problems thereafter.

The state government was authorized in the budget to borrow up to $11 billion this year, initially for cash flow purposes for just one year, but the law permits the state to extend that borrowing long-term. If federal aid is inadequate, New York will face the choice of slashing the budget or borrowing at least some of whatever deficit remains after federal aid has been provided to mitigate service cuts. The state may also have to bail out the MTA and consider the City of New York’s own request that it be permitted to borrow money for short-term operating expenses.

The New York City Adopted Budget’s Labor Provisions
New York City adopted its own budget in time for the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. It was filled with placeholders, the largest of which is $2 billion in new federal aid, which has not been passed and is the subject now at hand in Washington. The city budget also has a $1 billion placeholder for the de Blasio administration to negotiate savings in wages and benefits with the public employee unions. The mayor has said the city will have to lay off up to 22,000 employees beginning in October if it cannot achieve these savings.

The New York City Police Department ended up with modest cuts. Personnel moves will bring the size of the police officer force from 36,000 to 34,000, and the city has set a saving of $350 million in the police overtime budget. School security officers will be transferred from the Police Department to the Department of Education, which will reduce the police budget by $500 million, but the money will simply be spent in another agency.

The city used $4 billion in reserves to balance its budget, drawing down nearly all of its General Reserves, as well as about half the funds in a Retiree Health Benefits Trust. In the original proposed budget in April, the city projected it will have a $5 billion deficit next fiscal year, 2021-22, with little cushion left from its depleted reserves. Projected deficits for 2020-21 increased later this spring, meaning the ‘21-22 deficit could grow past $5 billion.

The adopted city budget did not anticipate any further cutbacks from the state government, despite the State’s Financial Plan with $8 billion in local aid cutbacks (which included other municipalities, not just New York City). The extent of aid in the federal package, therefore, will affect both the level of cutbacks from the state to the city, and the city’s own budget level.

The state and city both faced increased health care and emergency expenses above and beyond their normal budgets, but some federal aid from the original package is still untapped due to the failure of the Trump administration to provide guidance on how to spend the money and can be directed to provide relief.

The Answer, of course, is the Election: A New Progressive (or At Least Liberal) Government
Federal financial relief that just replaces revenue lost from economic decline can only last so long. If any relief package enacted now has a short duration, state and local government retraction is likely inevitable given how slowly the overall economy may recover from the virus. In the Great Recession, the Obama 2009 stimulus package expired in 2011 as the Republicans were coming back into power after winning back the House of Representatives in 2010. They restricted federal spending and the nation lost 500,000 jobs in state and local government over a several year period, slowing down the overall economic recovery. Let’s hope the same mistake is not made again, and that a new progressive government in the United States arrives to the rescue soon.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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A Police Reform Agenda for the Next City Council

marathon city

NYPD officers on the scene (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

Watching racial injustice at the forefront of our national conversation in recent weeks has inspired millions of people across the nation to leave their homes and get involved in our democracy — some for the first time ever. Together, people in New York City from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side to Jackson Heights have all said enough is enough. It is time for city leadership to stand up and respond. 

I am running for the New York City Council because I know we can do better than the system we have. The Council’s recent budget vote was a superficial attempt at change that missed the mark. We need real leadership on policing issues, not performative gestures and accounting gimmicks aimed at mollifying people seeking genuine progress. My plan aims to change the relationship between communities and policing, with the goal of engendering actual public safety, not a militarized city. 

First, I will create a public safety task force for my district, which includes parts of the Upper East Side, East Midtown, East Harlem and Roosevelt Island, that is made up of community leaders and experts in policing. I will meet with these resident advisors on a monthly basis to develop immediate strategies for policing in the community, and create a long-term vision of what policing should look like in the City of New York. 

Additionally, I will introduce legislation to create a five-year moratorium on the hiring of any new law enforcement officers by the city — that includes the NYPD, Corrections, and any other agency that has in-house policing. We are not going to solve the problem of over-policing in our communities while still adding to the payrolls of law enforcement agencies.

To further reduce these payrolls, we can offer early retirement incentives for people who are eligible, or near eligible, to retire, also saving the city’s deficit-ridden balance sheet. We also cannot balance the NYPD’s payroll on the backs of its non-law enforcement civilian workforce, which is largely lower-income, people of color who are not sworn officers. Changing our policing will not be accomplished with accounting gimmicks that target civilian, administrative staff.  

I’ll also advocate for consistent budget cuts to the NYPD and other policing entities. The New York City budget is a statement of values as much as it is a financial document. Our community needs funding for senior services, affordable and public housing, transportation upgrades and accessibility, to name just a few important examples. I will advocate for equitable budgets that prioritize social services and defund over-spending on police. 

Next, I will introduce a ban on any new law enforcement equipment acquired from the U.S. Department of Defense and mandate the city’s law enforcement agencies return any non-protective equipment (allowing agencies to keep basic materials like bulletproof vests or gloves). 

Ending policing in our schools will be one of the toughest mountains to climb. In the era of school shootings we tragically live in, schools may need some level of security. However, students should not be subject to policing that could negatively impact them for years to come. We need to put a stronger focus on identifying students who are at risk of a mental health crisis before it ever becomes violent. We do need to prevent strangers from coming into school buildings and to address issues where non-custodial parents may seek to remove children from schools. But we must eliminate the school safety officers as we now know them. Students in schools should be safe from threats; they are not a threat. Law enforcement in schools in its current iteration must end. 

This is not the end of the conversation or the work, but just the beginning. Billions of dollars need to come out of the city’s police budget and be invested in the tools that build stronger communities: education, the social safety net, good jobs and quality, affordable housing. We cannot lose sight of the need for policing to make communities safer, not menace the people who live there.  Much needs to be done to create healing in our communities for people to feel truly safe. Let’s organize together to build the future New York we want to see. 

Rebecca Lamorte is a Democratic candidate for New York City Council in Manhattan’s 5th District. On Twitter @RebeccaLamorte.

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