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11th May

First Published by The New York Sun, May 11, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

The chancellor’s announcement on Monday of the implementation of the mayor’s Fair School Funding initiative sounded wonderful — on the surface. Chancellor Klein declared, “Our new Fair Student Funding formula will help us level the financial playing field, making sure that all schools receive what they need to educate their students, so all schools can be held to the same high standards.”

In reality, this plan will come back to haunt Mr. Bloomberg, the next mayor, and the taxpayers. Recent history tells us that it is unlikely that students will benefit from more funds and that some may suffer from what looks a lot like income redistribution.

What the new formula ensures is that more money will be wasted, costs will soar, and expenditures will be driven up due to political considerations. The middle class, whose confidence in the schools is central to system-wide success, will become increasingly alienated to public education.

The central premise upon which Fair School Funding is based is that the quality of education is tied to the number of dollars spent. If this were true, Gotham’s children would all be geniuses, their scores having soared during the past decade or so, a time during which expenditures for education have skyrocketed.

If the premise held, test scores wouldn’t be flat. Since the current New York State testing regimen was put in place in 1999, spending soared but the percentage of eighth-grade students reading at or above grade level have increased by just a single point.

When Mayor Giuliani first trimmed the Board of Education budget, scores did not plummet. Nor did they rise proportionately when, later in his tenure, he greatly increased school budgets. The old Mayor Bloomberg, the one we elected in 2001, vowed that if he were given control of the schools, he would improve them not by spending more, but by better management. The money poured into the system has risen dramatically, but the results less so.

What is dangerous about Fair Funding is that it distills educational needs to a formula expressed in dollars and cents, not teachers and services. And because this new system is totally formula-driven, assigning weights to various categories of students rather than cost of providing services, it is open to political pressure and manipulation.

The pressure and caving in began before the new formulas were even put into place during recent negotiations between the United Federation of Teachers, along with a gaggle of special interest groups and the mayor.

Left-leaning interest groups, including the New York Immigration Coalition, ACORN, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and Make the Road by Walking secured a promise by Mayor Bloomberg to “significantly increase the weights for English Language Learners to reflect the specific challenges these students face.”

An English Language Learner in elementary school now automatically generates a 40% supplement over the base allocation, a figure that grows to 50% in middle and high school. Until a student passes an English language competency test, and many never do, these funds will continue to be “attached” to the student. It would seem that there is little incentive here to bring a child to English language fluency.

The old budgeting system calculated the number of teachers assigned to classrooms based on positions per so many students, to conform with state regulations and collective bargaining agreements. If more students showed up in September than anticipated in a certain program or grade, it would trigger the addition of a teacher to the staff.

The cost of each teacher was averaged across the system, so that schools that had managed to create a positive work environment and retain staff would not be penalized. While the UFT won a temporary “hold harmless” provision, which precludes this provision from fully kicking in for another two years, the result of this folly is liable to cause great consternation among middle class parents, in whose neighborhoods there appear to be more schools with more senior, but not necessarily better, staff. This disproportionately drains the formula-driven budget.

Under the basic funding formula, even before the “hold harmless” provision expires, low performing English language learners will bring to a school nearly twice the funding as an average student. Will they receive twice the schooling?

They already are receiving two-and-a-half additional hours of instruction each week under the teachers’ contract provisions, over 9% more instructional time than “average” or high performing students. What does the extra money buy, and is that expenditure linked to better outcomes?

And while there are generous supplements for special education students, not a single penny is provided for the needs of gifted and talented students in grades K through eight (there is a supplement for the specialized selective high schools).

Will it be any wonder when middle class taxpayers, paying high state and city income taxes, as well as property taxes, wonder where the equity is for their “average” children receiving less than half the “fair” funding?

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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