City Council Gives $20 Million to Private Schools, Most Anti-Gay

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer, seen here celebrating the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in June, all voted for the $20 million support package for private and religious schools. | DONNA ACETO

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer, seen here celebrating the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in June, all voted for the $20 million support package for private and religious schools. | DONNA ACETO

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her colleagues pushed through an “unprecedented” bill December 7 to have city government pick up yet another function of private and religious schools — security — allocating almost $20 million in taxpayer funds outside the normal budget process for “safety officers” in any school with more than 300 students that wants one.

Mark-Viverito had the support of the vast majority of elected officials, including three of the six out gay members of the Council: Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, despite the fact that it is a direct subsidy to schools mostly run by anti-gay religious groups that made up the bulk of those lobbying for it.

Intro 65-A was vigorously opposed by out LGBT Councilmembers Daniel Dromm of Jackson Heights, a former public school teacher and head of the Education Committee, and Rosie Mendez of the Lower East Side, who said in a joint statement, “Yeshivas, private schools, and parochial schools — unlike public schools — are not subject to Council oversight or much of the NYC Human Rights Law. Too often their leaders embrace homophobia, transphobia, and other horrific ideologies, and subject our young people to them on a daily basis in the classroom. It is our duty to protect LGBTQ students in every school. We must not bankroll hate with tax dollars. Lamentably there is no mechanism in this legislation to prevent such a thing from happening.”

Led by Speaker Mark-Viverito, backed by mayor, three gay members help chip away at church-state separation

Out Councilmember Corey Johnson of Chelsea also voted against it as did Inez Barron of Brooklyn, a staunch advocate for public education, but it passed 43-4 with the support of all three citywide elected officials — Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James — as well as otherwise liberal officials such as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

While the mantra of supporters was that the legislation was for the “safety of children,” none explained why they have gone through their entire public lives without advocating for such safety officers before, leaving these kids in such ostensible peril for decades.

More ominously, supporters of the bill also repeatedly refused to answer the question of what they saw as the limits to government funding for religious schools, expressly forbidden in the New York State Constitution. Indeed, the number one goal of religious schools is securing $250 million in state funds annually, an allocation that is supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo but was stopped by the Democrat-led Assembly this year. New York’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has vowed his church will continue to push for it.

While de Blasio’s police department opposed an earlier version of Intro 65 in April as encroaching on the NYPD’s discretion by mandating police-supervised school safety officers for any school that wanted one, de Blasio worked with chief sponsor Councilmember David Greenfield of Brooklyn in crafting the revised bill to allow reimbursement for private schools that hire their own security guards, who are supposed to be trained, unionized, and paid a living wage. The negotiations did get Greenfield’s request down to just under $20 million in the first year — with escalator allowances for more in the future — from a $60 million request in April.

While the city requires social service arms of religious groups that receive government contracts to pledge not to discriminate on any prohibited basis including sexual orientation and gender identity, no such restriction was placed on this funding. Most of the groups supporting it are from religions that teach that homosexuality is evil, restrict the role of women in leadership, and often lobby against LGBT rights. These groups include Agudath Israel of America, the Sephardic Community Federation, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Islamic Schools Association, and the Muslim Community Network. No progressive organization endorsed the bill, with the exception of SEIU 32BJ, which will organize the workers.

In Ireland, education is carried out primarily by Catholic schools that are totally state-funded, and this week that nation’s parliament moved to bar these schools from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In New York City, religious institutions are exempt from the human rights law in most respects and not required to hire or include anyone they believe would compromise their religious mission.

Opposing Intro 65 were the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which called it “unconstitutional,” Make the Road, the United Federation of Teachers, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Stonewall Democrats of New York, and others.

Allen Roskoff, president of the Owles club, said, “While red states fight to pass laws allowing religious discrimination, we provide special monies to bigoted organizations like the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, and Agudath Israel.”

Eunic Ortiz, president of Stonewall, wrote, “Any school in NYC — public, private, charter, or otherwise — that face a serious threat will and do receive sufficient NYPD-appointed security that is funded by the city. To provide staff to all private — meaning mostly religious — schools without a proper review of which facility has a need for this kind of security is an expensive way of going around constitutional prohibitions against using taxpayer funding for religious institutions.”

The Urban Youth Collaborative called the bill “an unprecedented step to subsidize private education using the public’s money,” noting in its release that according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, “New York City schools are owed $2.3 billion” under court judgements against the city and state for not providing a minimum adequate education in the public schools. The bill was also opposed by Class Size Matters, which fights for reasonable class sizes in the city’s overcrowded public schools.

De Blasio called the bill “fiscally responsible,” but State Senator José Peralta told Gay City that he and other elected officials in Queens have been begging the administration for increased funding for crossing guards — something that would demonstrably aid the safety of public and private school students — only to be told that there is no money for it.

Common Cause/ New York and the Citizens Budget Commission, in a joint statement, said, “Providing staff to private schools, including rules concerning salaries and work requirements, would be an inappropriate, indeed probably unconstitutional, use of government funds and regulatory oversight for non-public, religious purposes. We are also concerned about this blatant subversion of the public budget process, apparently in response to political pressures.”

What might those political pressures be? Councilmember Greenfield, a former vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation, heads an outside organization that is dedicated to securing government funds for religious schools, and he boasts in his online Council bio that he has been successful in securing $600 million in tax credits for parents of school children not in the public schools. Part of his sway over his fellow Council members may stem from his chairing the powerful Land Use Committee that they all have vital business before.

A highly-placed government source told Gay City that de Blasio reversed himself on the bill to court Greenfield's support as chair of the Land Use Committee for his faltering mass re-zoning plan that includes affordable housing. Greenfield vehemently denied that and a de Blasio's spokesperson, Wiley Norvell, said there “is not a shred of truth” to that allegation.

The New York Times reported that de Blasio promised the private school security jobs to 32BJ to win their support for his re-zoning plan, an allegation Norvell said there “was no truth whatsoever” to. Hector Figueroa, head of the union, did nevertheless endorse key elements of the mayor's plan. A spokesperson for the union told the Times “there was no quid pro quo.”

Most Council members had two unstated reasons for supporting Greenfield in using tax money to fund religious schools: they either have constituents who would like their choice to send their children to these schools to be further subsidized or they want to buy themselves good will with the increasingly powerful and cohesive blocs of Orthodox, fundamentalist, and Catholic voters should they decide to seek higher office.

Kenneth Sherrill, an out gay political science professor emeritus at Hunter College, told Gay City News in June, “I think the decline of traditional party organizations has magnified the ability of traditionally conservative religious organizations to turn out voters, sometimes enabling them to dominate primaries with no runoffs as well as to be able to deliver swing voters in closely contested elections. Just as old line political machines controlled jobs, the religious organizations use government funding to hire people who are highly motivated to campaign for someone who will allow them to keep their jobs.”

But publicly, it was all about concern for “the safety of children,” though none explained how the LGBT children will be protected from anti-gay religious teachings that foster self-hate and have driven many from their homes and to suicide.

“Students across our city deserve a safe learning environment, no matter what community they come from or where they attend school,” said Mark-Viverito, but like all her colleagues she refused to clarify what has suddenly changed that mandates the government now stepping in where it never has before. Some cite rising fears about terrorism, but the agents hired under this bill will not be allowed to carry guns.

“Claims that this legislation will protect students are specious at best,” wrote Dromm and Mendez. “The fine print reveals that security guards would still be required to contact the NYPD should there be a threat to students’ well-being. It is clear that Intro 65 is simply a ruse orchestrated by well-paid lobbyists.”

City officials swear allegiance to the US Constitution, the New York State Constitution, and the New York City Charter, but the bill’s supporters did not talk about the explicit prohibitions on this kind of funding in the State Constitution. Article 9, Section 3, approved by the voters in 1938, states: “Neither the state nor any subdivision thereof, shall use its property or credit or any public money, or authorize or permit either to be used, directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection, of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught, but the legislature may provide for the transportation of children to and from any school or institution of learning.”

That prohibition has been chipped away at through the funding of books on secular subjects and school nurses in private schools.

Mark-Viverito insisted that the new funding would withstand any legal challenges on constitutional grounds. Norvell, the de Blasio’s spokesperson, wrote in an email, “This legislation, which applies to both religious and non-religious schools, is directed at enhancing the safety of the city’s school children and staff, and not at aiding religion. As such, we believe it is consistent with legal precedent.”

That conclusion ignores the fact that any money these schools don’t have to lay out for their own security increases the amount they can spend on promoting their religious activities. De Blasio also reversed Bloomberg-era policy that banned churches from using public schools for regular Sunday worship at nominal cost — something mostly taken advantage of by the right-wing Christian fundamentalist “church planting” movement.

Mark-Viverito’s press office pushed back at questions about why she was “pushing through” this bill. While she declared herself “proud” to be backing the bill, she made that statement in a release dumped late the evening before Thanksgiving, the text of the substantially revised bill was not immediately available, and the meeting of the Public Safety Committee on December 4 that took up the bill was not announced until the day before. Despite the complete overhaul of the bill, no public testimony on it was permitted at the committee meeting.

Johanna Miller, advocacy director of the NYCLU, said in a statement, “The City Council’s practice of giving inadequate and untimely notice before so-called public hearings is undemocratic and virtually guarantees participation will be limited solely to professional advocates and lobbyists.” In this case, not even these professionals had any chance to offer input other than through the press.

At the committee meeting, Ritchie Torres acknowledged “severe criticism” he had received from members of the LGBT community for whom he said he has respect. “Even though I find the content that might be taught in some or many of these schools to be offensive and deeply contrary to who I am, that doesn’t mean that these schools aren’t entitled to some basic standard of school safety,” he said. “I do not see this as an issue of LGBT concern.”

Dromm told Gay City that one of the real problems in the public schools is “abusive” security agents, and he said if the Council can afford $20 million for private schools they should appropriate an equal amount for “restorative disciplinary practices” for such security personnel in the public schools as well as for many more guidance counselors. This year, he was able to secure $200,000 to advance the integration of LGBT issues in curricula, far from the millions that will be required to bring all schools up to speed in this area and make them safe for LGBT students and staff.

Full disclosure: In covering this bill this year, I came to strongly oppose it myself. When the Council honored me in June at its LGBT Pride ceremony I told them, “Protect religious groups from specific threats by all means. Protect all New Yorkers. But before this Council caters to anti-gay religious constituencies with something they have no right to, please show some respect to the right of our kids to a roof over their heads.”

Religious institutions used to be wary of government support because it meant complying with secular regulations that they would otherwise not be subject to. The New York City Council is providing this funding with no strings attached.

“This is a clear example of pork for religious communities and it is not consistent with the progressive values our Council is supposed to stand for,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.

For those who feel that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause is not in danger, it’s worth considering an op-ed that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, wrote in the Washington Times this week. It’s title: “The Wall Separating Faith and Public Life Must be Torn Down.”

“Private schools have every right to exist,” veteran Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote this week about this Council bill, “but not at public expense.”