When I was in grade school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I went to PS 138 just off Nostrand Avenue. In third grade, we kept having substitute teachers and the books for our class didn't arrive until a month into the school year. It was an all black school in a poor neighborhood and racism wasn't hidden in school funding in the New York of the 1950s.
But in third grade I wasn't worried about educational quality. I was worried about a fourth grade bully who terrorized us all at recess. I found out that every time my classmates turned and ran away from him, he knocked them down. I've never been a great athlete and I couldn't run very fast, so when my turn came, I just turned around and put my fists up, shaking like a leaf, waiting to get the crap kicked out of me. To my great surprise, he called me a name and walked away.
I don't suggest this to today's young people. In my old neighborhood these were the relatively benign 1950s. But the essential lesson about bullies remains the same. They feed on people's fear and don't necessarily want to test whether they've finally run up against someone who will fight back.
My school yard confrontation came back to me when I read the reports that the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) plans to close its budget gap by ending free passes for school kids. Of all the people who lack political and economic power in New York City, low-income kids using student passes to get to junior high school or high school must lead the list. They can't vote, and their parents (many who are legal immigrants) aren't considered a major voting bloc, and they certainly aren't major political contributors to elected officials of either party. So here's a group which can only turn and try to run away. But the rest of us have to stand up because this particular sort of cost cutting has a profound impact on New York's immediate future.
New York City - for all the efforts at reform - still has one of the worst on-time high school graduation rates in the nation (by the state's calculation, 52% in 2007). Every year, like clockwork, about 20,000 young people drop out. In a recent Community Service Society report, From Basic Skills to Better Futures: Generating Economic Dividends for New York City, we found that over a million New Yorkers of working age lack a high school diploma or GED. A recent New York Times article revealed that the unemployment rate for black men without a high school diploma has reached an all-time high of 24 percent.
So what does high school graduation have to do with free transit passes? In my youth it cost 10 cents to ride the subway. It's a bit more expensive now. The cost per student will be over $20 per week; over $800 per year. That's chump change for the members of the MTA board, but our recent Unheard Third survey of low-income New Yorkers (a third of all working age New Yorkers) found, for example, that over 70 percent of low-income Latinos have less than $500 in total reserves. A child or two without a transit pass means something has to give - rent, food, clothing, or getting to junior high school.
If ever there was a sure way to reverse the positive efforts by the Bloomberg administration to lower an appallingly high dropout rate, it's to make it financial impossible for large numbers of low-income teenagers to get to school. But from this corner we hear only silence. The mayor and the chancellor have been brilliant in their efforts to fight for teacher accountability, smaller schools, and innovation. They have to realize that getting the poorest pupils to school every day is just as important as a great new curriculum.
The MTA and the city have options. They can be extreme - like shutting down the system overnight as Washington, DC, and virtually every major European city does. They can go to Albany again and finally get tolls on East River bridges. They can do what a dozen localities do and allow well-heeled New Yorkers into the HOV lanes if they're willing to pay $7.50 for the privilege. They can start to put ads on the sides of subway cars and, like many bus lines, become mobile bill boards. I'm sure there are dozens of more ideas for revenue enhancement and expense reduction. But charging full fare for poor children going to school is the surest way to destroy any hope for a city which is drifting straight towards an economic disaster for the poor and a tax and quality of life meltdown for the rest of us. It's time for us collectively to turn around and put up our fists.