Parents, educators, politicians, and advocates jumped headlong into last summer’s fiery debate over hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to New York City school budgets — but student voices were often harder to find.
A group of teenagers is now trying to change that. The students are organizing a walkout and rally at City Hall Thursday protesting last year’s cuts and urging city officials to not cut any more in next year’s budget.
The student rally, organized by the advocacy club at Bard High School Early College, comes as Mayor Eric Adams is expected to release his preliminary budget for next fiscal year – a critical first step in determining school funding for next school year.
Chalkbeat spoke with Judah Firestone-Morrill, a 16-year-old junior at Bard who helped organize the rally, about the students’ goals, and why they believe youth voices should be at the center of the debate over school budgets. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a little bit about the idea, where the idea for the walkout and the rally came from.
We were aware that some budget cuts were ratified. But we didn’t know much more than that. Since it’s such a universal issue for public schools, not just high schools, but elementary, middle schools around the city, we decided to do this.
How have you gone about trying to spread the word about this to other students and other schools? And what kind of reception have you gotten?
It’s really been interesting to do a student-led walkout because we’re quite literally a grassroots organization. So we don’t really have a platform. And while that also added a special uniqueness and like empowering aspect to the walkout, it also made it more difficult because we didn’t start with connections. So it was really a lot of work. We had to quite literally go through our contacts and find students at other schools who were interested in promoting it. We also made use of social media by finding student-run Instagram accounts, such as club accounts, and even some student government accounts at some schools to try to convince them to promote the walkout.
As for the students themselves, there are some who obviously already knew about it and were definitely really excited and readily agreeing to go out. We also had some who didn’t know. A lot of them, including us in the beginning, didn’t really have a real idea of the scope.
What have you made of the arguments from the mayor and the DOE that these cuts are driven by enrollment losses, that schools with fewer students should need less money, and that some of the COVID relief money that the city was previously using to hold schools’ budgets harmless is running out?
As a student who has completed over one school year’s worth of remote learning, I’ve seen a really intense personal detriment to my own learning, where I lost passion for virtually all my classes. I struggled, as did many of my friends and peers. I know that the pandemic and the fallout from remote learning has been a mess. Statistically, there’s severe deficits in academic performance. And so I think it’s kind of naive for higher-ups to cut funding, when I’d say that you probably need it more than ever to re-energize students and compensate for these deficits.
If there is declining enrollment, it’s in large part fueled by the pandemic. And I don’t think that they’ve denied that, but they’re also failing to address how the pandemic has hindered learning opportunities and how we need to use more funding rather than less to enhance that.
The City Comptroller, I believe, published an analysis last August, suggesting that we could use COVID stimulus money to cover for the deficit involved.
We have another budget process for next year starting. What are you hoping to see in this next budget? What are some of your demands?
Obviously it’s the restoring of the old budget, on the basis that we still have the funds in COVID stimulus. And also, I’d also like some accountability regarding the illegal process in which the budget cuts actually were made. The budget cuts were found to be completed illegally through the chancellor’s use of a state of emergency to bypass being reviewed by the Panel for Educational Policy prior to the adopted budget’s ratification. [An appeals court agreed that the adoption of this year’s education department violated state law, but declined to nullify the budget.]
I hope to see, especially in light of that appellate court ruling, more accountability, and more ethical ratification of the new budget. And if there’s a more ethical and legal process of that ratification, then hopefully you’ll see council members being much more aware of what exactly they’re voting for, and we could see a much more satisfactory budget passed.
We’ve heard from so many people about this issue: parents, teachers, politicians, unions, advocates. Why do you think it’s important to hear directly from students? And what kind of perspective can you bring that those other groups may not have?
Ultimately, the budget cuts are affecting us in a unique way. It’s really important, I think, for students to advocate for themselves, so they can’t be dismissed. It’s very empowering for students to talk about their own personal aspirations and how those have been injured or mitigated by the budget cuts.