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2nd July
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, July 2, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” That’s what I’d say to the folks at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, fresh from their victory in a lawsuit against the state over school funding. Some folks are already counting the money and predicting an educational renaissance. What they may have really won is permanent court control of our city’s school system.

The Legislature has 13 months to answer the court-mandated question, “How much does it cost to provide an adequate public education.” Their “answer” will almost certainly be wrong.
Unfortunately, the figures that are bandied about use the most affluent suburbs as the standard of comparison.This is very deceptive. Here in New York City, schools with higher-income populations — District 2 on the Upper East Side or District 26 in Queens, for example — actually get less money for each student than schools with large numbers of poor children, since they aren’t eligible for funding under the Federal Title I or under the No Child Left Behind law. Yet they easily outperform the schools with higher allocations.

That isn’t the whole story. High-performing New York City schools make do with much less money than their wellheeled suburban counterparts. And yet they often outperform even the most generous suburban districts. Moreover, between the city and state contributions, school funding right here in New York City rose dramatically during the past decade. What have we gotten for it? A decade of flat test scores. More money really is not the end-all and be-all.

Raising performance among the poorest of New York’s children is not as simple as “equitable” funding. That’s something that the plaintiffs in the case and the lowercourt judge, Justice Leland DeGrasse of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, are not likely to acknowledge. And Justice De-Grasse could soon have more influence over the schools than Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg. The city’s education policy may soon be dictated by the courts — just like the homeless policy.

Middle- and upper- income communities like to spend money on education. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t approve ever-more-inflated local school budgets, paid for with ever-more-inflated property tax bills. Ninety-four percent of local school budgets were increased in New York State this year, which is a record. Residents who have no children or couldn’t care less about education understand that the reputation of a school system has an impact on property values.

Even in New York City, where there is a total disconnect between what is spent on education and local property taxes, parents are often willing to step to the plate and reach into their own pockets to help their children. Only in the Big Apple would such generosity actually be discouraged.

In September 1997, fourth-grade parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village discovered that there would be four classes instead of the usual five, because of a slightly shrunken enrollment. Parents were told they had to live with class sizes of 32 children, instead of 26.

People have a visceral belief that smaller class sizes are preferable. But as Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute have recently pointed out, that argument is not quite so simple in practice. In California, where elementary-school class sizes were reduced after a billion-dollar influx of funds, scores simply did not go up. There just weren’t enough qualified teachers to staff the additional classes; whatever advantage was gained by having smaller class sizes overall was lost by a less capable teaching staff.
But in Greenwich Village, the problem also had a human face. It wasn’t just bigger classes for their children, but the fact that class 4-406 was being disbanded and their teacher, Lauren Zangara, moved to another school that upset the parents. A letter went home to fourth-grade parents asking them to donate $360 toward the $46,000 needed to keep Ms. Zangara and the extra fourthgrade class at P.S. 41. Amazingly, P.S. 41 was successful in raising the funds virtually overnight, to the delight of then-District 2 Superintendent Anthony Alvarado.

But once the commitment of the parents to their own children became public knowledge, they found themselves at odds with then-Chancellor Rudy Crew. Such a generous action would result, he believed, in an “imbalance” in the system, giving more affluent parents and their children an “advantage” over children from poorer neighborhoods. Mr. Crew allowed the teacher to be retained, but the school district had to come up with the cash. So serious an infraction was this, that there was even talk of bringing Mr. Alvarado up on charges for accepting the parents’ generosity.

This is in line with the criticisms of schools in more affluent neighborhoods by the high priest of the “more money gets results” movement, Jonathan Kozol. He is the far-left polemicist whose deceptive works on education are required reading on virtually every college campus in the country. In his book “Savage Inequalities,” Mr. Kozol implies that even parents volunteering in a school library might represent an unfair advantage for children in middle-class schools. It would never occur to Mr. Kozol that perhaps it was the lack of enthusiasm of parents at poorer schools that put their own children at a disadvantage.
Sol Stern, writing three years ago in City Journal, noted that the kind of school that Mr. Kozol admired was the Lenin School in Castro’s Cuba, a school he wrote about in a now blessedly out-of-print book, “Children of the Revolution.” Presumably at Lenin High parents aren’t permitted to pass the hat to add an extra art teacher. The truth behind the funding problem is that for the plaintiffs and folks like Mr. Kozol, no amount of money will ever be sufficient. No matter how much is spent, there will still be significant numbers of children who fail.

Evidence more than suggests that increased funding does not bring increased results.The state may have lost this case because of the ridiculous arguments they made suggesting that an eighth-grade education was adequate. The plaintiffs may be getting what they wished for in their court victory and in the billions of new dollars that will assuredly be coming into New York City schools in years to come. But the improved results they predict will, I believe, be far more elusive.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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