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13th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 13, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The floodgates appear to be opening for other municipalities in the state to copy the strategy the Campaign for Fiscal Equity used to win additional funds for New York City schools through judicial order. A lawsuit filed by education officials in Yonkers seeks tens of millions of dollars a year in additional state aid. Similar lawsuits are expected from upstate cities and economically depressed rural areas.

This is happening as the concept of “equity funding” appears to have won permanent institutional backing from one of the nation’s leading schools of education, Columbia University Teachers College. To lead a new Campaign for Educational Equity, the school has hired the activist attorney who led the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Michael Rebell. The school has established the goal of raising $12 million the first year to finance the new institute, which seeks to close the gap between education expenditures for children from rich and poor households.
The press release issued by Teachers College says that not only do “poor and minority children significantly trail their wealthier peers … in academic performance,but also in family wealth.”

Besides education, Teachers College officials promise to address issues such as “health and health care, and ultimate avoidance of crime, violence, and incarceration.”

The school’s president, Arthur Levine, said: “That’s what we’re talking about at Teachers College when we talk about inequity in education. It’s why we consider ‘the gap’ to be the educational equivalent of AIDS or cancer in medicine, and why — with the support of our trustees, faculty, and students — we have made closing it the new mission of our college.”

That is a far cry from the traditional view of schools of education as places to train teachers to become effective classroom leaders. The new stress on schools of education as places for social and political activism is mirrored elsewhere. Recently, Brooklyn College has come under criticism for evaluating the “disposition” of potential teachers toward issues of social justice as factors in admission and certification. Concerns have been raised that the policy could result in political screening of prospective educators.

For Teachers College, the financial health of school districts may have greater significance. As Mr. Rebell has fought to win billions of dollars a year in government money for what he views as the underfinanced schools of New York City,Teachers College has received tens of millions of dollars of the city’s education money in service contracts. That largesse comes from the Department of Education under the current administration but began under its predecessor,the Board of Education. In the past four years alone, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, led by a controversial “reading guru,” Lucy Calkins, has increased by 67% the per-diem fee it charges the city, to $1,250 from $750. That represents the cost of sending one “staff developer” to one school for one day.

Critics of the Calkins program would charge that the poor performance of students over the years may be more due to the ineffectiveness of her “whole language”-based reading program than to a lack of funds. Adding more pressure to school districts that favor using the Calkins approach is the federal government’s ban on the use of its substantial Reading First funds for programs like the one advocated by Ms. Calkins and Teachers College. Under the No Child Left Behind law, that approach has not been deemed validated by scientific research.

Less than two weeks ago, the Board of Education in Yonkers and parent groups in the Westchester County city filed suit in White Plains against the state, charging that Yonkers, like New York City, is shortchanged by state school funding formulas. The suit says they have received less aid than other large cities in the state, notably Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

Yet officials in those cities, too, are considering similar lawsuits, and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, along with its political arm, the Alliance for Quality Education, has been encouraging such suits throughout the state.

A similar suit brought by the NYCLU on behalf of 27 upstate schools was rejected earlier this year by the state Court of Appeals.But that rejection was based on the technical grounds that the individual schools had “no standing” to sue the state. It is school districts that are the “agents of the state” and would have standing, the state’s high court said in a ruling that did not consider the substance of the schools’ claims.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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