Education

The School Battle That Launched Cynthia Nixon’s Political Career

Seventeen years ago, a kindergarten class lacked teaching aides while a budget war raged. One HBO star–turned–parent helped lead the protests.

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Nearly twenty years ago, on what was already a nerve-racking first day of school, parents of kindergartners attending P.S. 163, a dual-language English-Spanish elementary school on West 97th Street, found a classroom full of glaring safety issues. The bulging school population meant kindergarten classes were, as in previous years, held in adjacent trailers. A gate to the recess yard was open to the public, but no security guard was on duty; there was no intercom system to connect with the main building; and though each class had 25 to thirty kids, no paraprofessionals (better known as “teacher’s aides”) were assigned. A story made the parental rounds that the children had been left unsupervised for several minutes because a teacher was forced to leave the classroom to fetch a band-aid for an injured student and no other adult was available to step in and watch the kids. Apocryphal or not, it was a troubling situation for teachers and administrators.

“It was always a worry of what if one of the children gets hurt, or if I got hurt, can one teacher watch all the other kids while we go inside?” says Lisa Galeano, a kindergarten teacher who had started at the school the previous year. “We just didn’t have enough staff, so it came down to a group of parents spearheading efforts to fix things.”

Cynthia Nixon, one of the four pillars of the hit TV show Sex and the City, was one of those concerned parents. Nixon’s daughter, Samantha, the first of two children she had with partner Danny Mozes (they split up in 2003), was enrolled in the school’s Gifted and Talented program, whose classroom was in a makeshift trailer. The P.S. 163 battle marked the beginning of Nixon’s life as a public activist, which has taken her from an outside agitator to a 2018 New York candidate for governor.

Nixon has made fully-funded public education a centerpiece of her gubernatorial campaign, hammering it home right alongside her guaranteed applause lines in favor of legalizing weed. She has decried the growth of charter schools, called for doubling Cuomo’s proposed school aid increase to $1.5 billion by raising taxes on those earning more than $5 million, and denounced the expansion of policing on school grounds. Last month, she launched “Educators for Cynthia” and called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to repeal the Annual Professional Performance Review, a teacher review process that focuses on state standardized test scores.

Nixon’s views on education have certainly evolved and grown in scope since that first day of her daughter’s kindergarten class. And yet it’s not so far-fetched to say that her gubernatorial run might have never happened if those trailers had been in good shape.

“A lot of times, in order to become motivated and get active, a person has to have some direct experience between their lives and the larger world,” notes Billy Easton, executive director at Alliance for Quality Education, an organization Nixon became affiliated with during that 2001–02 school year. “I wasn’t there in 2001–02, but that trajectory is a common one. We had a teacher who contacted us because her school space was being threatened. She credits that moment for realizing how effective she could be and now she’s one of our super-activists.”

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Nixon, a product of Hunter College Elementary and High School, was adamant her children would attend New York City public schools as well. Now that her daughter was in kindergarten, though, her class needed help. Samantha’s trailer classroom was some fifty yards from the lunchroom entrance, and little children with little legs tend to dawdle. The everyday act of walking across the courtyard to the cafeteria was an ordeal in itself.

“It was taking 45 minutes just to get to lunch,” says Mia Galison, owner of eeBoo Toys, whose daughter was in the same class as Nixon’s daughter. “If one kid needed the bathroom, they all went to the bathroom. Just an insane amount of wasted time each day.”

“My recollection is that Cynthia said, ‘Let’s go see the superintendent right now!’ ” says Danielle Fenton, a former actress, and publicist at the time, who had a son in Nixon’s class. “So we walked a few blocks to the District 3 office to voice our complaints. They gave us the runaround, but we were tough New York women who weren’t taking ‘No’ for an answer.”

Fenton immediately called the city desk at NBC News, who came and did a story the next day. The main get, of course, was the erstwhile Miranda Hobbes, who had recently told boyfriend Steve she was having his baby just as Sex and the City went on a mid–season 4 hiatus.

“The timing was perfect,” says Fenton, who now writes plays in her North Carolina home. “The television cameras were on as the kindergarteners were getting out of the half-day. There were all these kids, parents, and guardians congregated, so it looked like a much bigger protest group than the seven or eight of us who’d hatched the plan. The principal walked out, saw the cameras, turned around and walked back inside. Pay dirt.”

Then, on the second full day of kindergarten, the World Trade Center was attacked, throwing what was already a challenging fiscal climate for Gotham public schools into the unknown. The previous January, state Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse had ruled that Albany’s aid distribution had shortchanged New York City for years, spending $2,000 less per student than the statewide average, to the tune of $2 billion annually. Governor George Pataki had appealed the ruling, so the funding situation was in limbo. Then in late October, the New York City Board of Education officials warned of potentially “devastating midyear cuts.”

This is when Nixon took her first steps from concerned parent to school funding activist.

Six weeks after 9-11, Nixon raised her fist at a rally in Madison Square Park, three miles north of the smoldering rubble.  It was organized by the AQE, whose New York director at the time was Christine Marinoni, later to become Nixon’s wife. (“I’m pretty sure I was with Cynthia at that rally when they first met,” laughs Fenton. “Did not see that one coming.”) Nixon joined some 200 teachers, advocates, parents, and kids in protesting the cuts, speaking of how Samantha’s school lost a dozen teacher’s aides and had but a lone lunchroom worker to watch over 72 four- and five-year-olds, calling the lack of official non-voluntary adult supervision “unacceptable.” For the rest of the school year, Cynthia Nixon was on a righteous mission.

“I didn’t watch Sex and the City, so I didn’t know who she was, but she was so down-to-earth, always an advocate for all the kids,” says Irene Martinez, a first-grade teacher at P.S. 163 for the past 21 years. ”When I had Samantha in first grade, Cynthia would buy art supplies or copy paper or whatever for the whole grade, not just our class. I remember the United Federation of Teachers were taking turns outside the school holding signs and placards for smaller class sizes, and against the cuts, and Cynthia and her daughter were there with us.”

In February 2002, the budgetary crisis worsened as new Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $358 million reduction for the Board of Education starting that July. New York City faced a $5 billion budget deficit, but Bloomberg refused to raise taxes other than on cigarettes. That same month, Nixon went to Albany and met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to advocate for more school money and to work the press. She told the Daily News that having two adults try to keep order over several hundred kids in the recess yard “resembles nothing short of a prison riot.” And she mentioned to the Times that she’d never been involved in politics but wanted to do more for public schools, adding: “If that means getting further involved in politics, so be it.”

On May 14 of that same year, Nixon joined some 75 people in stopping traffic outside City Hall, calling for the reinstatement of more than $1 billion to the Board of Education. A hand-picked group of twelve activists, including Nixon, blocked an entrance to City Hall, while singing lyrics urging Bloomberg not to cut the budget, to the tune of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” For her act of civil disobedience, a smiling Nixon was handcuffed and taken to the First Precinct to be charged with disorderly conduct.

Nixon was issued a summons, but was back on the Sex and the City set the next day. Her arrest made an impact, though, as the protest inspired further peaceful demonstrations throughout the week. Russell Simmons got in touch with Nixon and asked, “Can’t hip-hop get involved?” At the end of the school year, a who’s who of the rap world was out at City Hall protesting the budget cuts during a rally-cum-house party. Guests included Chuck D, Raekwon, Erykah Badu, RZA, and Jay-Z, who sent the call out on air at Power 105 and Hot 97 for school kids to walk out at 2:30 for the 3:30 protest.

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Ultimately, the cuts ended up being nowhere near as draconian as advertised. Mayor Bloomberg’s 2003 budget laid off thousands of paraprofessionals and school aides — the very people who drew Cynthia Nixon into the fray in the first place — to save $53 million. But overall individual city schools received more money. It was paid for, in part, through property, sales, and income tax increases.

As Samantha’s kindergarten year came to a close, the disorderly charges against Nixon were dropped and her year of activism came full circle, at least by the DOE calendar. But what began in the P.S. 163 schoolyard continued, as Nixon pressed on with her advocacy work on behalf of fully-funded city schools, which has been expanded statewide as a bedrock issue in her campaign platform.

“My first full year was 2001, and after 9-11, it was scary, but we still took the kids on trips, put them on buses, and gave them a normal school year,” says Galeano. “The community we have at this school was warm and comforting during a time of tragedy and part of the reason I’ve stayed for eighteen years.” As for the immediate staffing crisis, she recalls, “We got our paraprofessional back for the remainder of the year,” then adds: “I haven’t had one since.”

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