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15th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 15, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The Mega Millions jackpot is up to $144 million, the kind of money that can get me dreaming.What would I do with $144 million? A house on Lake Como in Italy comes to mind, perhaps an occasional jaunt down the Autostrada to Rome in my new red Ferrari for dinner at La Pergola, the fabulous restaurant sitting on the roof of the Cavalieri Hilton atop a hill overlooking the Eternal City — in fact, I just might buy La Pergola.

This is the kind of dreaming that has recently become fashionable among our state and city politicians. They are busy figuring out how to spend the money that the courts have ordered spent on New York City’s public schools, a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.
This is great sport. Like my lottery daydreams, it is much fun to fantasize about spending money we don’t have. Of course, if I score with my dollar and a dream, it will be at the expense of a few million other folks with similar fantasies, voluntarily tossing their own bucks into the pot with the full knowledge that it is unlikely that they will win.

In the case of the CFE lawsuit, if the billions ever materialize, we all know from where the money will come: you and me. When you put your state income tax check in the mail tonight, think about adding perhaps between 15% and 20% to what is already just about the biggest tax bill in the nation. Unlike the lottery, this would not be a voluntary contribution.

But don’t lose too much sleep over this. Raising taxes by that much might mean losing votes, so it is unlikely that even the current crop of spendthrift pols have the stomach for this. There has been a lot of talk, a lot of dreaming, but not a single realistic strategy advanced for raising the dollars. The appeal of the court case could drag on for years, and even if the appeal fails, it is not clear that the courts can order the imposition of higher taxes to pay the bill.

The biggest dreamer is Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who shares with Mayor Bloomberg much of the credit for the city’s property tax increase. He appointed an entire commission to help him figure out how to spend the CFE money that doesn’t exist. This commission is headed by Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University Teachers College. The executive director of Mr. Miller’s panel is Anthony Alvarado. Not surprisingly, one of the key programs that they plan to spend the phantom largesse on is “professional development,” that is, putting millions into teaching teachers rather than children.

They want to target junior teachers with a daily hour of what many educators view as slow torture, presumably on top of the hundreds of hours each year teachers are already spending on professional-development activities. Since these new teachers are also mandated to obtain a master’s degree within the first five years of their professional careers, they will likely spend more time being taught than actually teaching. Is it any wonder why huge numbers of teachers abandon the profession during their first years on the job?

Mr. Alvarado was let go from his last post as the instructional chief of San Diego after increasing expenditures for professional development from $1 million a year to $55 million.This literally bankrupted the school system.The students in San Diego, by the way, aren’t doing any better since Mr. Alvarado began his efforts.

Mr. Levine likes these programs. His institution stands to receive even more millions of dollars each year in lucrative professional development contracts. Currently, the city pays Teachers College $1,200 to send one staff developer to one school for one day. Nice work if you can get it.

My colleague here at The New York Sun, Julia Levy, reported yesterday that another candidate for mayor, Fernando Ferrer, has already pledged to cover 25% of the CFE costs out of city funds. Should he lose the election, I would advise him not to become a professional poker player. Mr. Ferrer loves to tip his hand.When he ran four years ago, he pledged right up front to increase teachers’ salaries by 30%. He doesn’t understand that the job of the mayor is to negotiate the best deal for the city, not pre-negotiate the worst.

Even our businessman-turned-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose personal fortune makes this week’s lottery jackpot seem like tiddlywinks, has visions of CFE dollar signs dancing in his head. He has morphed from his original focus on spending better to the same fantasies of a windfall as his Democratic opponents.

Maybe the best strategy to generate these dollars would be to send State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and his city counterpart William Thompson down to the local newsstand with sacks of dollar bills to buy Lotto tickets to pay for the pipe dreams of our political leaders. Hey, you never know.

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

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