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Bloomberg's Budget Choices Hit Students Hardest

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New York City schools are at a crossroads, and there is good reason to be pretty damn angry about it.

In February, every city school painfully absorbed the shock of being suddenly forced to slash 1.75 percent of its budget, at an average of $70,000 per school. At some schools, the cuts topped $447,000. Across the city, many after-school activities and tutoring programs were immediately discontinued. Principals were forced to make Sophie's choice on what to cut -- technology, smaller class sizes, art or music, books, paper...

Mayor Bloomberg took a blasé attitude towards the mid-year cuts, saying the disappeared funds would have "no impact whatsoever," adding, "I know of no organization where you couldn't squeeze out 1.7 percent, or even a lot more."

The CEO mayor's logic may work in terms keeping a company's stock price afloat despite "belt-tightening" or lay-offs, but it doesn't fit one bit for schools. Erasing vital programs and personnel will incontrovertibly have an effect, and a terrible one at that -- especially for our most vulnerable, at-risk students. Meanwhile, the city is giving a 9% raise to its high-priced international consultants and maintaining an excessive, expensive regime of standardized testing.

And it's about to get much, much worse.

Bloomberg's proposed cuts for the upcoming school year will make this February's slash look like a walk in the park. He wants to reduce education spending by over $500 million, with schools bearing the brunt of the cuts.

The economy may be in turmoil, but ripping the guts out of the school system -- a system ostensibly existing to empower our future leaders -- is the worst possible reaction. City schools need the knife taken out, not twisted deeper inside.

Mayor Bloomberg and his appointee Chancellor Klein don't appear to grasp the horrendousness of the situation. Klein observed that principals "have to tighten some programs," as if it's the principals' puzzle to solve. The reality is that the weight will fall on our students, who will be deprived of what they deserve and have been promised -- a safe, inclusive environment at school and an excellent, well-rounded education.

Fortunately, these heartless budget cut proposals have sparked outrage, and that outrage has organized. I was one of the thousands of teachers, parents, and students in the relentless rain the recent "Keep the Promises" City Hall Park rally. The crowd was a mosaic of the city; people of every age, race, and social class were in the streets. We weren't asking for special treatment from City Hall; we just don't want our children to be needlessly, tragically shortchanged.

Speaker after speaker made impassioned pleas to enact the state Assembly's budget bill as a solution to this education funding crisis. The Assembly plan initially rested on a one-percent tax hike on millionaires, a proposal supported by 72 percent of New York voters, including 60 percent of Republicans, according to a Siena College poll. Sadly, the popular plan has been killed.

Now, funding for schools has been pushed off the headlines by the flashier issue of congestion pricing. We badly need Albany to come together on a plan to reduce the budget cut burden on public schools, and for City Hall to listen. Bloomberg's alternative is tantamount to a suicide pact, one to be played out slowly over future generations.

If Bloomberg succeeds in his school budget slash, the fallout will be several-fold:

First, curricula will continue to distort and narrow toward what is being tested. With increasingly limited resources, and professional futures being based on test score bumps, principals will be discouraged from making room for art, music, physical education, electives, and enrichment programs. These programs, while crucial, aren't on any state tests and won't be fussed over by anyone outside the school community if they disappear. At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, nearly $1.3 million is spent to provide summer-, after- and before-school opportunities to over 4,200 students. Most, if not all, of it will likely be gone if the mayor gets his way.

Second, working in poorly resourced schools will disillusion new teachers even faster and thus keep increasing New York City's absurdly high and costly teacher attrition rate. With budget cuts pushing class sizes to the maximum (34), nearly every middle- and high-school teacher will have an astounding 170 students per semester -- a recipe for accelerated burnout. With more and more fledgling teachers running under-funded, overcrowded classes, students will suffer.

Third, with bigger, more impersonal classes, fewer guidance counselors, and virtually no extracurricular opportunities, more kids will feel lost in the shuffle. For many, going to school will equate to preparing for a standardized test. More kids on the fringe will drop out. Fewer kids, trapped in a mean-spirited bureaucracy, will be able to realize their potential for excellence.

No one benefits in this scenario, and a shrugging response that we are in turbulent economic times doesn't cut the mustard.

Mayor Bloomberg, listen to your city's parents, teachers, and students. Listen to the needs of your youngest, most vulnerable citizens. Provide kids with the tools they need to meet the standards and soar beyond them. Keep the promises.

Don't walk away from us now.

Dan Brown is a New York City teacher and the author of "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."