Part of the Series
The Road to Abolition
If budgets are moral documents, then New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s budget, recently passed by city council, confirms what many activists have been saying: that the city is pushing an unconscionable descent into an expanding police state.
In such a state, not only do police budgets expand, but other agencies’ budgets shrink, even as their functions are absorbed by the police. Under the new budget plan, New York City Department of Education spending will decrease by almost $1 billion while the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) budget will grow to $11.1 billion, accounting for the largest police budget in the United States. The number of school safety officers, which Mayor Adams reallocated to the NYPD budget, will expand, accounting for $400 million of police budget. Moreover, according to Community United for Police Reform, the new “budget continues to fund the NYPD at 3 or 4 times the rate of other crucial agencies like the departments of ‘Youth and Community Development’ and ‘Aging,’ and ‘Parks and Recreation’.”
The cuts to schools are tied to enrollments, which shrunk by 80,000 between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, with additional declines in enrollments predicted. New York City’s public schools are among the most segregated and unequal in the U.S. — an issue that has only been compounded by the pandemic — and those hit the hardest by the loss in public school enrollments are overwhelmingly low-income students, qualified as “economically disadvantaged,” as well as students with disabilities.
Yet according to Mayor Adams, “We’re not cutting, we are adjusting the amount based on the student population.” Adams’s “adjustments” — his education cuts —come at a time when long-standing organizing for school desegregation has generated a broader acknowledgment of the city’s segregated and unequal schools. Leonie Haimson, executive director of the education advocacy nonprofit Class Size Matters, tweeted that, “Last time NYC school budgets [were] cut to this extent was 2007-2008 [was] during [the] Great Recession.”
To be sure, the crisis that marked the Great Recession was also a time of austerity for public schools. As the Michael Bloomberg administration (which closed almost 200 schools over the course of 12 years) pushed forward austerity measures, many public schools administrators — increasingly on alert and fearful of being labeled “underutilized” and closed, or subjected to cuts in already-stretched budgets — started actively recruiting families with economic means.
Their rationale for recruiting these families combined a number of goals: keeping public schools open, fighting off the growth of charter schools and making up for austerity cuts through parent fundraising. For two decades, I have worked in Community School District 3, one of the most diverse yet segregated and unequal school districts in New York City, first as an organizer and later as a researcher. During that time, I’ve found that the recruitment of families in District 3 who were reconsidering their plans for, or investments in, private schools, was made possible by the mechanism of “school choice.” Enlivening market logics, school choice supposedly provides a range of options to parents as to where they can send their child to school and a range of competitive landscape from which schools select students.
In my own research, I trace how policies of school choice, which emerged in the post-Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955) period, have been implemented through a range of mechanisms — including segregation academies, magnet programs, charter schools and voucher programs — that have consistently been driven by efforts to evade a redistribution of resources, expand consumerism and ensure the continuity of unequal schools through race- and class-based exclusion. In District 3, policies of school choice mobilized toward enrolling wealthier families during the period of the Great Recession included the expansion of dual-language programs, as well as magnet and gifted and talented programs. Though these programs (some of which, like dual-language programs, were distorted from their progressive mandate) utilized the language of diversity and multiculturalism they ultimately created zones of exclusion, and a public school system that operated much like the private: with a competitive and opaque landscape of admissions, uneven access, and a limited ability to assert rights or entitlement to services. These conditions eventually erupted in the heated battles over school zone lines that captured national headlines in 2015 and 2016 which, in turn, inspired increased organizing for desegregation.
At a recent press conference on his proposed budget, Mayor Adams responded to critiques regarding education spending cuts by saying, “Now some people say, ‘Well you have the money already, why don’t you spend the money that you have?’ Wrong, no. Just because you see money in my bank account doesn’t mean that I didn’t write a check against it somewhere. It’s just people didn’t cash it yet. Every dollar we have is allocated, and it’s going somewhere. So, if we take away from those dollars, we’re going to take away from some of the programs that are in place and they’re paying for.” Adams is not technically wrong here — ultimately, he is taking from education to fortify the police.
According to Charlotte Pope of Teachers Unite, the entire Department of Education budget will be slashed by nearly $1 billion, translating to the loss of school staff as well as much-needed services and programs, with $215 million in cuts directly to classroom budgets. As police budgets expand and others shrink, there will be questions about how to fill the many holes in the bucket that austerity measures create. These questions are not new, but rather point to established trends of neoliberal restructuring.
What becomes clear in examining what took shape during the Great Recession and other moments of state realignment however, are the stakes at hand of how we navigate this crisis, and the ways we can fight back. The expansion of school choice programs, and the structuring of rights as private choices and piecemeal remedies to “saving public schools,” is far from enlivening any notion of the commons or collective life. Through public or private means, policies of school choice have worked to naturalize myths of meritocracy, scarcity and competition, ensuring that a world in which one’s rights and freedoms are positioned against those of another is the only world we’re able to imagine.
Far from an anomaly, the austerity measures enacted by Adams ’s budget represents a backlash against a growing movement for abolition, one that aligns with a larger trajectory of Black freedom struggles intertwined with a long history of organizing for transformed public education. This history shows that everyday people understood that the fight for desegregation was never about integration or even access, but about a public school system we have yet to win, one that is inextricably tied to the radical redistribution of resources. Moreover, this longer trajectory also illuminates that schools are sites of possibility, containers through which the slow and steady work to cultivate new social relations necessary to abolitionist futures might take shape in the present.
Too often, such projects have been considered only possible outside of the state form. Yet unlike prisons and jails, schools and hospitals might be repurposed and transformed if they are intimately linked to and rooted within a larger strategy of liberation movements. Examples of this strategy abound. They include the Movement for Community Control of Schools and its multiple place-based articulations.
They also include El Comité, which led a 14-year struggle in the 1970s and 1980s to win a Spanish dual-language program at one District 3 elementary school. Central to the program was that it was governed by parents and teachers. As Rose Muzio documents, key to winning the program was a broad coalition and a wide range of tactics, which included attending and interrupting school board meetings, picketing and occupying the school. Positioned against the assimilative and deficit oriented bilingual education programs of the time, the program won by El Comité was fundamentally understood to be part of a larger project to transform material conditions and build working-class power for self-determination and a decolonial future.
Beyond the U.S., we can also learn from the Landless Workers Movement/ Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) has developed 2,000 schools in their settlements that have served over 200,000 students. The MST’s educational experiments, as Rebecca Tarlau documents, have also included winning state funding for adult literacy, vocational high schools, training thousands of teachers, and establishing hundreds of preschools. Informing the MST’s work in education is its strategy of working within, through and outside of the state.
If, as abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes, “crises do indicate inevitable change, the outcome of which is determined through struggle,” then the moment we are stepping into, marked by intensified austerity, will be determined by the struggles we wage. Learning from the recent history of the Great Recession, as we push forward demands to defund the police as well as fund and transform public schools, our organizing can be informed by insurgent examples like those outlined above. The opposite of piecemeal, individual solutions, these experiments speak to the vision and praxis of abolition democracy.
As W.E.B. Du Bois illustrates in Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, abolition democracy was defined by political projects that were rooted in place, which linked growing freedom in the present to building capacity for future collective liberation through the establishment of institutions and infrastructures grounded in radical relationality and expanded political horizons.