As New York cuts school budgets, art teachers are feeling the pinch

Students in art class at MS 821 Sunset Park Prep in Brooklyn (photo by and courtesy of Olivia Swisher)

On June 13, Paul Trust was called into the principal’s office at PS 39 Elementary School in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he taught music for more than a decade.

At the meeting, the school’s management told the Trust that his job was at risk and his dismissal was the “worst case scenario”. But after the headmaster met with the Borough’s head office to discuss their 2023 budget, that scenario became a reality: the trust would be “redundant” or sacked from his position. And the school told its only other music teacher, Nick Deutsch, who had been there for six years, the same thing, effectively eliminating its music department.

PS 39 was forced to cut spending by 14 percent, one of roughly 1,200 New York City school districts — 77 percent of the city’s total — who were told to cut their budgets by a certain dollar amount after Mayor Eric Adams cut school funding by more than $200 million. The cuts are tied to enrollment declines that most New York City schools have experienced during the pandemic. Budget decisions are at the discretion of school principals, and arts departments, which are already underfunded despite being a “core academic subject”, are not protected.

“Whenever there are funding cuts, the arts are usually the first to get cut,” Mario Assaro, head of the New York Art Teachers Association, told Hyperallergic. “I don’t see how it won’t affect music, art and other special subjects.”

“When you hear budget cuts, everybody’s looking at you,” added Olivia Swisher, an art teacher at MS 821 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. “As an art teacher in general, going into the field, you have to understand that you’re always first.”

New York has no allocations or guidelines mandating arts funding in schools. Reversing a 1997 initiative that allocated arts spending per student, Mayor Mike Bloomberg eliminated the mandates for the 2007 school year, allowing school principals to use pre-allocated arts funding for whatever they decide. The impact was immediate: That year, the percentage of schools without a certified art teacher rose from 20% to 30%, and spending on art supplies dropped 63%.

The Department of Education (DOE) still recommends arts funding per student, suggesting $79.62 per student last year, but the figure is just that – a suggestion. And while New York state requires a certain number of hours dedicated to arts education in schools, it does not specify the funding. The compliance of New York City schools is tracked in the annual Arts in Schools report, which examines dance, music, theater and visual arts in K-12 public schools. Although nearly all public high schools in New York City offer at least one major, this statistic drops exponentially to 63% for two majors, 25% for three, and just 5% for all four. The figures are higher for secondary and primary schools.

In the 2020–2021 school year, 100% of applicants met the state arts graduation requirement, defined as three hours of arts instruction per week for one year, or the equivalent. But the compliance of the average students paints a bleak picture: only 33% of graduating eighth graders completed the one-credit requirement (90 minutes per week for one year).

Budget cuts in 2023 could further shrink arts education programs in New York City, threatening the careers of public school art teachers and leaving them with an uncertain future.

Student art at Sunset Park Middle School, where next year’s budget has been cut by 16% (photo by and courtesy of Olivia Swisher)

Now that PS 39 has cut the two positions, Trust and Deutsch will enter a citywide hiring pool. As “redundant” teachers, they will remain on the city’s payroll, but finding a new job as a music teacher may prove difficult with major budget cuts across the board. If they do not find a job before the start of the school year, they will join the Absentee Teacher Reserve (ATR) where they will be assigned to a school in their district or, if there is none, to a school in their district. They are not guaranteed any other primary school age group or subject.

“I could teach high school pre-calculus,” Trust told Hyperallergic. “On top of that, you don’t know anyone’s name or even the school culture. So you’re already at a huge disadvantage.”

Deutsch echoed the sentiment. “I don’t think people understand how devastating it is. I have worked in this building for six years and have taught three groups of students from families. I know the names of 450 students. I can teach at this level because I have this investment,” he said.

Trust added that she knows art teachers who have left the profession after being unable to find work teaching the subject they were passionate about.

“[Mayor Adams] wants teachers to burn out,” Deutsch said. “Being in ATR or being a substitute and being pushed from school to school—teaching eighth grade, then teaching 12th grade, and then teaching kindergarten—it’s so stressful that when I imagine, ‘This is my future?’ then I think I’ll just walk away.”

“I’m just not going to do this job,” he continued. “Because what it takes to do a job well is an investment in community and support, and when those things fall apart, it stops being fun.”

One principal at Joseph H. Wade 117X, a high school in the Bronx, told Hyperallergic that her decision to have more than two teachers didn’t feel like an option.

“The way it’s going, I’m not that hopeful,” Delise Jones said. “We all agree that students should be in school. We all agree that schools should be a safe, inclusive place where students receive a quality education and have the exposure and opportunity to excel in all areas, but then we also reduce resources, limiting leaders to meet that expectation. Then we blame them when they don’t live up to expectations.”

City Hall declined to make a public statement for this article.

The Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), a group of the United Federation of Teachers, at a demonstration in Manhattan (courtesy of MORE Caucus)

Many others expressed displeasure with the mayor’s 2023 budget, which increases funding for police and jail staff as it cuts funding for schools.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most New York public school teachers, called the budget cuts “unnecessary and unacceptable.”

“The city is sitting on billions of dollars that the federal government gave it to help public school students recover from the pandemic,” Mulgrew added. This federal funding to help with COVID-19 allowed school budgets to remain intact during the worst years of the pandemic, even as enrollment declined. But the Energy Department has struggled to spend all of that amid staff shortages and other challenges, and about $5 billion remains untouched. Comptroller Brad Lander, New York City’s chief financial officer, also criticized the Department of Education for leaving billions of dollars unspent, saying the agency “needs to use a small portion of remaining stimulus funding to cover the gap in next year’s school budgets .”

A City Council spokesman noted that the $215 million cut represents less than 0.5 percent of the DOE budget, “a fraction of the fraction” of the funds needed to provide support to schools. And while that money may seem insignificant to the larger DOE budget, it becomes significant when it is eliminated from individual schools — some of which will have to cut more than a third of their budgets.

The DOE did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Mayor Adams justified the cuts as part of his “fair student funding” formula, which passed in May despite widespread backlash. Struggling with fewer state and federal contributions, the city will increase its own DOE spending by $720 million, but the overall DOE budget will still be lower than last year. While cutting individual school budgets, Adams insisted, “We’re not cutting, we’re adjusting the amount based on the number of students.”

Hundreds of thousands of students have left the school system since the pandemic began, but some have expressed doubts about the DOE’s enrollment projections as the city’s population appears to be recovering. Now, for example, more people are moving to Manhattan than before the pandemic. Kaiser, an art teacher at a Lower East Side public school who goes by her last name, believes enrollment is low because the city is “starved of public school.” She added that layoffs could force art teachers into private and charter schools.

The disparity between New York’s reputation as America’s cultural capital and the state of public school arts education offerings is not lost on teachers.

“I just find it so strange that you live in a city where so many of the tourist dollars come to go to Broadway, to go to jazz shows, and yet the kids in the city constantly have to fight to keep the arts dollars in schools,” Deutsch said.

“It just raises an interesting question — where is the priority? Why do we want to bring people to this city to go to these institutions and support these things, but our own children here are constantly being taken away from it?”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.