Council education budget hearing highlights city’s biggest priorities: school safety, immigrant youth, 3-K education

Courtesy of New York City Council.

School safety, supporting the newly-arrived migrant students and families, vulnerable youth populations, and early childhood care and education were some of the biggest priorities discussed at the city council’s recent budget hearing on education on Feb. 15. 

Ahead of the budget hearing, Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph raised as her biggest objectives and priorities: immigrant families, the safety and wellbeing of New York City children, and vulnerable youth — particularly those who are in foster care or those with disabilities.

Last year, the administration made $370 million in cuts to the city’s school budget. For many schools, this has resulted in larger class sizes, fewer social workers, insufficient academic and mental health support, and little to no arts and music programming, said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at the hearing.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks highlighted the loss of over 120,000 students since 2017, including 70,000 in the last two years before his arrival, resulting in a current total of 903,000 K-12 students across more than 1,600 schools and 1,889 early childhood centers.

Banks said the city’s Department of Education has made strides to fund a full-time social worker in every school, increase funding for multilingual learners through the Office of Language Access, expand outreach and support for students in temporary housing, and prioritize expansion of special education preschool seats.

Banks credited the work of several councilmembers at the hearing, including Joseph’s push to expand preschool special education seats; Queens Councilmembers Linda Lee, Shekar Krishnan, and Sandra Ung for developing an Asian American and Pacific Islander curriculum, which will be soon expanding; and Shahana Hanif for providing assistance to newly-arrived migrant students and families.

The DOE has a preliminary budget of $30.7 billion for the 2024 fiscal year, which is $295.3 million less than its adopted budget for the current fiscal year. This represents about 31% of the city’s budget — the largest area of spending.

School safety & mental health

Chancellor Banks pointed to the DOE’s launch of the $9 million Project Pivot program for 138 public schools across New York City. The DOE will work with groups like Black Girls Rock, National Cares Mentoring, 100 Black Men and the NAACP, to counsel and mentor students and foster a safer culture based on restorative justice. 

“One of the places that we have gone into with Project Pivot have been some of our schools that have had the greatest number of incidents throughout the city,” Banks said at the hearing. “The goal here is to ensure that we able to reduce the number of incidents in fact that are happening in school and outside of school.”

While the number of incidents in schools has not increased dramatically, Banks said that what has increased is the “number of weapons that our kids have brought to school” to protect themselves on their way to and from school.

“What’s happened is the number of incidents happening across the street from the school, around the corner,” Banks said. “The kids are telling us they’re bringing these weapons to school, not to deal with issues that they have problems with their classmates. It’s to protect themselves as they’re going to and from school.”

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks testifies at the Education Committee Preliminary Budget hearing on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.Courtesy of New York City Council.

During public testimony, Melinda Andra, interim director of the Education Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society, shared one of her client’s experience witnessing one of the recent shootings that happened outside of a school.

“He was bystander, he said it happened right in front of him and as a result of that, he is traumatized,” Andra said. “He is terrified to return to school. His mother asked the school if he could get a transfer and he was told no. He reached out to us for help. It contributes to experiences of young people feeling they need weapons in the community. It contributes to young people avoiding school, and chronic truancy, because children are afraid.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said there was a need for DOE oversight on mental health instruction and training staff on mental health. For this, he suggested hiring 500 social workers, school psychologists, and nurses — especially in schools in under-resourced neighborhoods.

“We know that Black students in our city are more likely to attend overcrowded, segregated schools in high poverty areas,” Williams said. “We should double down on investments in schools to reduce class sizes, allow greater emphasis on social-emotional learning, and create opportunities for creative expression, arts, and music classes.”

Students would fare greatly in their academic pursuits if additional funding is directed towards the identification and treatment of mental health issues for children, said Suhali Méndez, the policy and legislative coordinator at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She urged the city council to fund staffing of licensed mental health evaluation providers.

“Schools serve an important role in meeting not only our children’s educational needs, but also their social-emotional demands,” Méndez said. “Overall, there is a significant deficit in mental health services for students with disabilities in New York City’s schools.”

Immigrant and newly-arrived migrant students 

Between July 2022 and Feb. 2024, around 13,200 school-aged, asylum seekers enrolled in New York City’s public schools. Many do not speak English or have limited English proficiency, according to the DOE.

To support immigrant families and newly-arrived migrant refugees, Joseph hopes to prioritize Promise NYC, a $10 million program bridging access to child care services for undocumented children and families that launched January 2023. Joseph also included more support for English language learner transfer school programs. For foster youth and students with disabilities, several goals are ensuring all school buildings are ADA-compliant, guaranteeing bus service for these populations, and fully funding shelter-based coordinators.

“Our newly arrived families deserve culturally responsive support for themselves and their children so that they can thrive within the NYC school system,” Joseph said in a statement. “Students who receive special education services and our foster youth deserve the best services and care that they are mandated to receive.”

Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph (left) and Speaker Adrienne Adams at the Education Committee hearing on the 2024 Fiscal Year Preliminary Budget on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Courtesy of New York City Council.

Andrea Ortiz, the manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said that the city must invest $3 million to add comprehensive services to the six new English-language transfer schools programs in Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. Currently, more than 40% of the city’s public school students live in a family where English is not the main language.

This funding could support more bilingual social workers trained to support immigrant youth and families, wrap-around supports and community-based partnerships, and the tools to create a roadmap that other schools can follow to support the newly-arrived immigrant youth.

Ortiz also suggested $4 million be invested to expand 20 community-based programs across the city to provide culturally-responsive and linguistically-diverse outreach, application enrollment and early intervention support and referral services to immigrant families with three and four year old children.

“We have the money to fund our schools, but we cannot afford afford to throw away our future by choking our engine of economic mobility for immigrants and non immigrants alike,” Ortiz said at the hearing.

Students with disabilities

Around 30% of preschoolers with disabilities, which translates to around 7,000 students, went all year without receiving at least one of their legally mandated services, such as speech or physical therapy, or part-time special education teacher services, Joseph said, referring to DOE data.

“They’re still numerous preschoolers with disabilities waiting for services to begin,” Joseph said. “Many children haven’t even been evaluated for services due to a shortage of preschool special education evaluators.”

Christina Foti, the DOE’s chief of special education, said the department added five pre-K centers to specifically provide services for students with disabilities, as well as recently hiring 60 positions to provide services. There are 6,000 seats ensured for children with disabilities, as well as 600 new seats added over the last several months.

3-k early childhood education

There are currently around 42,000 applications for 3-K, which has increased by 27% from 2021, and around 54,000 Pre-K applications, an 8% increase from the same year, according to the DOE. Roughly 55,000 3-K seats are included in the 2024 preliminary budget, though there is also an elimination of 6,000 vacant 3-K seats, in order to save $283 million.

“I feel that we are failing at outreach,” said Councilman Lincoln Ressler (D-Brooklyn). “If we are failing at outreach and not engaging the immigrant families, the marginalized communities, and bringing them in to the 3-K program, we will continue to not achieve the maximum enrollment that we need.”

The DOE has allocated about $4.5 million dollars to support early childhood marketing efforts, which has in the past included emails, robotic calls, community events, and social media advertisements.

Public Advocate Williams noted his support of early childhood education programming and achieving salary parity between the early childhood education workforce and public school employees.

“We must work to correct the course that has weakened our 3k system,” said Speaker Adams at the hearing. “This requires ensuring a strong, adequately staffed early childhood division, providing contracted providers with outstanding payments and on-time reimbursements fixing the structural problems with the program.”