For an annual tuition of over $46,000, the Dalton School on the Upper East Side serves up about the best education money can buy. It offers advanced robotics programs, Broadway-worthy theater productions, and library facilities rivaling those of many colleges. It’s a far cry from the city’s public schools, plagued as they are by inequities and often struggling to provide extras beyond a basic education.
But despite its advantages, Dalton is also among the private schools that have cumulatively received $2.2 million in public funds so far this year, and are slated to receive millions more, as part of a controversial program enacted by the City Council in 2015.
Records released by the city under the state Freedom of Information Law show that a measure pitched in part as an anti-terrorism effort has benefited some of the city’s most prestigious — and expensive — private schools. In all, 162 private institutions, the majority of them religious schools, are slated to receive a total of about $20 million in the first year of a program that reimburses nonpublic schools for the cost of on-site security guards.
The Hewitt School, Town School, and Collegiate School, each of which has a tuition topping $45,000 a year, are all on that list. The latter advertises itself as “among the top all-boys K–12 schools in the world” and counts among its alumni Bill Kristol and John F. Kennedy Jr.; JFK Jr.’s sister, Caroline Kennedy, attended Brearley, another school slated to receive public funds. The funds pay for one full-time guard at institutions with three hundred students or more; schools with five hundred students or more can be reimbursed for the cost of two guards.
Councilman David Greenfield, who represents Borough Park, had championed versions of the bill for years before it was finally enacted. (Greenfield’s initial proposal, to station city police officers at private schools upon request, was shot down by the NYPD.) It was only in December 2015 — less than a week after fourteen people were killed in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California — that it finally passed the council, the result of a compromise struck with City Hall.
At the time, Greenfield invoked the threat of terrorism as just one reason the bill was necessary; its passage just after the San Bernardino incident was, he told WNYC, “especially poignant.”
“It’s another reminder how the world has changed in the last few years, that terrorism is on the rise,” Greenfield told the station. “And so it’s another benefit of having security, but that was not the impetus.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supported and signed the measure, also hinted darkly at the need for more security at schools, telling the Times, “You can imagine, in the environment we’ve been in the last few months, how much communities are concerned.”
De Blasio’s critics framed the measure as a sop to both a religious constituency and union interests; a provision of the law requires that security guards hired with city funds be paid a prevailing wage, and the bill earned the endorsement of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union. The day after the bill’s passage, 32BJ president Hector Figueroa declared his support for the mayor’s two key city zoning proposals, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, which allow for increased housing density in exchange for building affordable units.
The measure also had the strong support of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim advocacy organizations when it passed, and religiously affiliated schools have proved to be its biggest beneficiaries. Eighty-one schools, the majority of those slated for payouts, are apparently Catholic-affiliated, according to a survey of school names; sixty-five are affiliated with Jewish organizations and two with Muslim groups. Fourteen look to be secular private schools, including such prestigious institutions as Dalton and Collegiate.
Another school on the current list, Avenues, is structured as a for-profit venture, which would make it ineligible under city rules. Asked about the apparent discrepancy, a spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which administers the program, said Avenues would be denied any funds as DCAS staff goes through the final approval process.
When the measure became law, it was over objections from such groups as the New York Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause New York. They worried that the funds represented an impermissible giveaway to religious institutions, something expressly forbidden under New York’s constitution, though the program has not seen any kind of legal challenge.
There was “massive politics” at play, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, tells the Voice. She says she wasn’t surprised to learn that well-heeled private schools would be applying for the funds — “it’s free money,” she points out — but said it was ultimately irrelevant which private institutions were receiving public money.
“There is no real public-policy purpose to this massive taxpayer giveaway — it is purely political,” Lerner says. “As the New York City Police Department testified at hearings, there has never been a problem at any school where the NYPD wasn’t able to get there promptly.” The spending happens to come as New York is experiencing its safest year on record in city schools. In any case, Lerner adds, the guards funded under the program are unarmed.
A spokesman for Greenfield didn’t respond to specific questions from the Voice, but said in a statement that the nearly $20 million expenditure was small relative to the overall school budget.
“The program capped initial spending on the program at $19.8 million, a tiny fraction of the city’s $85 billion annual operating budget,” the statement read in part. “As a result, children are now safe in schools. The overwhelming majority of guards go to poor schools. If a few of the richer ones are benefitting, it’s worthwhile to ensure that every child is protected.”
De Blasio’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did most of the schools mentioned here. “We do not comment on security matters,” wrote Dalton’s communications director via email.