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20th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 20, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

When he is not busy measuring the windows in the governor’s residence for new drapes, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is calculating just how deep into New York City taxpayers’ pockets he can reach to help fund a “settlement” of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Barring the miracle of the Court of Appeals rejecting the premise on which litigation such as this is based, New Yorkers can expect this to be costly. There is, however, another choice.

If one figures at $5 billion annually, it is likely that Mr. Spitzer will insist that the city pick up somewhere between 30% and 40% of the tab. According to published reports, he is likely to tie the CFE issue to the mayor’s continued control of the city’s public schools. This has become the “holy grail” to Mayor Bloomberg.The state doesn’t have this money, particularly if we accept Mr. Spitzer’s word that he won’t raise taxes.

The Empire State’s other big cities have already put in claims for their pieces of the equity pie, all of which is estimated to add another $3 billion to Mr. Spitzer’s budget woes. Outside of the New York metropolitan area, the state economy is in spiraling decline. Unlike New York City, with its booming economy (Mr. Bloomberg’s true legacy), the depressed upstate urban condition demonstrates no ability to absorb further public expenditures.

In telegraphing the linkage of an expected large city contribution to continued mayoral control, Mr. Spitzer cleverly plays to the mayor’s vanity. Mr. Bloomberg is traveling the nation evangelizing his “model” to other cities. Despite evidence of flat test scores and questionable claims about graduation rates, the mayor finds receptive ears among his big city colleagues. After all, what politician doesn’t want complete control over a huge bureaucracy?

In Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa jumped on the Bloomberg bandwagon, hoping to duplicate our mayor’s adroit usage of the short honeymoon period following his election to win control of the schools. A new governance package did emerge in California that only marginally enhanced the power of Mr. Villaraigosa.

On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg took a District of Columbia councilman, Adrian Fenty, who is poised to win election as mayor there, on a tour of city schools to highlight his “success.” Presumably this did not include an independent analysis of the city’s mediocre performance on recently released standardized tests.

When math results were finally released last week (seven long months after the tests were administered), the declines in scores were attributed by state Education Commissioner Richard Mills to a “harder test.” Chancellor Joel Klein picked up Mr. Mills’s excuse, though last year, when scores rose, results weren’t attributed to an “easier test.” Then, both Messrs. Mills and Klein were trumpeting “historic gains,” although evidence has emerged that last year’s tests, particularly the fourth-grade reading exam, were easier than the tests administered the previous year.

Which brings us back to Mr. Spitzer and the lawsuit. If he continues on the path he seems to have taken, he will have squandered his opportunity to reform education in New York State. Mr. Spitzer needs to redirect the focus from how much money we spend to how we spend it.The first step is to fix the most profoundly broken piece — the structure for testing and assessment.

Whatever claims Messrs. Bloomberg, Klein, and Mills make are based on scores that are inflated.The gap between results on New York’s tests and those on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is one of the highest in the nation.The discerning reader should understand that the true figures of gradelevel competency are inflated by, in some cases, a factor of two. Other states, such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, have managed to test their children and get results that are remarkably close to those on the NAEP, considered the gold standard of testing.

If the true number of students doing grade-level work is only half of what the state and city say, then the problem goes beyond money — it is caused by spending too much on the wrong pedagogy.

Mr. Spitzer should take steps to place all testing and assessment in the hands of an independent professional panel and insist that our testing be as rigorous as the NAEP. Educrats will not be happy. Too bad. All they have to show for the doubling of education expenditures over the past decade is deceptively inflated scores.

Once we recognize how bad things really are, Mr. Spitzer should question the “progressive” education methods that dominate in nearly every American school.These ideas emanate from the halls of Columbia University Teachers College, which has now put the originator of the CFE lawsuit, Michael Rebell, on its payroll to promote even more equity suits. They want to ensure that the money flows.

This suggests the best choice Mr. Spitzer can offer the mayor: Either change course in your classrooms or go to your own taxpayers to fund your folly.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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