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What the Looming NYC School-Bus Strike Can Teach Us About the Real Impact of 'Austerity'

Those who claim to care about our children's safety often refuse to invest in it.

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While we're talking about safety, a close look at the contingency plan that will take place in the event of a strike reveals a blatant disregard for the overall safety of the city's children. Those who ride the bus would receive Metrocards to travel to school, but only the parents of K-2nd graders would receive an additional Metrocard so they could escort their child on the subway. That means Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott would be sending children as young as third-graders -- typically 8- and 9-year-olds -- to ride the subways by themselves, unaccompanied, if their parent or guardian could not afford a Metrocard themselves. Afterschool programs would continue as usual, which would leave those young children traveling home alone well after dark. All in the name of the budget.

Bloomberg claims the saved money would be reinvested in the school system, but given his track record, there is little reason to trust his commitment to investing in the city's children. He has closed at least 140 schools and sought to lay off thousands of teachers. This past spring, I wrote about his effort to eliminate over 200 afterschool programs, which would have deprived 47,000 children of programs that provide academic and artistic enrichment to low-income populations and students of color. Although Bloomberg argues, “We have an obligation to use our money effectively,” he has yet to be more specific on how exactly the money would be reinvested to classrooms.

Given Bloomberg's history of attacking teachers unions (the latest of which came January 7, with his likening of the UFT to the NRA), we shouldn't be surprised by his treatment of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The specifics of the options for negotiating are complicated, due to the court decision last year regarding busing contracts. But the anti-union rhetoric employed in the city's press materials regarding the strike feel like a continuation of the escalating attacks on unions all over the country. The value of job security and the importance of these jobs for the union members has been nearly erased from the conversation. Bus drivers hoping to keep their jobs after years of working are cast as selfish and unreasonable in a landscape of budget cuts and the “lowest responsible bidder.”

What makes the school-bus dispute even more catastrophic is the systematic devaluation of neighborhood schools that accompanies it. New York City proudly operates a “choice” system, a trend emphasized all over the country by pro-charter, pro-privatization enthusiasts (the importance of “choice” was a consistent talking point throughout the 2012 presidential election).

The choice program -- Public School Choice or PSC -- essentially encourages students to transfer from their zoned, or neighborhood, schools into better schools elsewhere in the city if their neighborhood school has low-graduation or low-proficiency rates. In other words, if a child's community school is “failing,” the city has structures and supports to transfer the child elsewhere; meanwhile, those “failing” schools, as previously mentioned, are often closed, gutted or left to struggle. If neighborhood schools were prioritized over choice, New York City students would be attending schools in their own communities, not far from where they live. Instead, they are bused all over the five boroughs. Similar reform models are being pioneered all over the country by organizations like StudentsFirst, presumably in places that don't have New York City's robust public transit system. Where would a school bus strike leave them?

As assaults on public education, social programs and union jobs escalate, the potential school-bus strike is significant, both for its immediate consequences and for the battle it symbolizes. It distills the risk our city officials are willing to take with our kids in order to trim the budget, and it highlights the fact that job security is the first thing to go and the last thing that workers are entitled to expect in our market-driven culture. The most vulnerable children in this scenario -- those with disabilities and those with working parents -- are often invisible; adults rarely have to think about how a kid's day starts and whether or not they are being supported. But if there's a strike, all those students will suddenly be visible -- they will all be riding the subway. Our children are not abstractions or political talking-points or faceless dollar signs. And soon, the city's residents may have to face the results of policy that values the bottom line over quality of life.