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10th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 10, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

NewYork City residents wondering where the money will come from to finance the court order to increase school funding don’t have to search far.They simply have to find the nearest mirror and take a long hard look.

When the Campaign for Fiscal Equity first filed its lawsuit, many believed that it was based upon the premise that the state school-funding formula was short-changing New York City students. But the judges ultimately found that the overall level of spending for city schools is not adequate to meet the constitutional guarantee of a “sound basic education,” despite the fact that New York State already leads the nation in per pupil expenditures.
But therein lay a tax time bomb for New York City. Since the case turns out not to be about the city being shortchanged by the state, it is likely that a significant part of the costs will come out of the city budget. Governor Pataki suggests 40%. Mayor Bloomberg vainly counters with zero.The ultimate outcome will most probably be closer to the figure advanced by Michael Rebell, the lawyer for the CFE, 25%, itself catastrophic for New York City working men and women.

Not to mention the rest of the state.There is a mistaken perception among city residents that the rest of the state is composed of one continuous Scarsdale, flush with wealth. Once you cross the Putnam County line and leave easy commuting distance, however, you enter a time warp, a New York stuck in a 1932-style depression. Upstate is bleeding industry — and population.The idea that there is a huge pot of gold located somewhere in the Albany area that merely needs to be tapped into is preposterous.

It is actually Gotham that is the economic engine of the state, so the thought that upstate will be subsidizing our children is naïve.If Mr.Rebell is right that he will be successful in forcing New York City residents to kick in a quarter of cost, it a misleading formulation. Of the remaining 75%, an estimated 40% will come from city residents paying New York State taxes. That will mean that 55% of the cost of the increased educational costs will come out of our pockets, not some anonymous Daddy Warbucks living on a horse farm outside of Saratoga Springs.

Nor is this the end of the bad news. It is also probable that similar increases in educational expenditures will be mandated for the state’s other large cities, such as Buffalo, Albany, Rochester, and Syracuse, places that are in great financial distress and less able to bear increased costs themselves. This will drive the price tag even higher. State taxpayers living in New York City will be compelled to bear a share of these costs as well. Could the increased tab approach $10 billion a year? Yes.

Judge DeGrasse, meet Miss Pandora and her famous box. There will always be pressure to spend more, particularly if so many of our children continue to fail. And they will. New York City and state have increased educational expenditures dramatically during the past decade, yet increases in performance have been marginal at best. Money alone is not a magic bullet.

If you don’t believe this, I suggest that you look at the sad experience of Cambridge, Mass. Despite an enormous per-pupil expenditure of $17,000 — twice what Boston, just across the Charles River, spends — and despite the secondlowest student-teacher ratio in the country,Cambridge has still failed to bring its black students up to the state average for all blacks.

I have no problem with spending money on education if it can be shown that increased expenditures will make a measurable difference for our children. But if you look at the programs in place in Cambridge, programs that are not working for children at risk, they look very much like those Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have vastly expanded here. It is not the amount we are spending, but what we are spending it on that makes a difference.

Mr. Bloomberg came to office pledging to fix the schools within the budget already in place. He told us that harnessing his business acumen would reform the school system, making it perform to expectations. Mr. Klein, Sol Stern has pointed out,once defended the state of Missouri in a similar lawsuit. Back in the 1980s, Mr. Klein argued that extra money would not make a difference to Kansas City’s troubled schools. He lost the case, but won his point — the extra billions failed to turn the system around. Now they both have joined the more money crowd with a vengeance.

Leadership is the ability to tell people the truth — consistently. The real responsibility of the governor and mayor is to do what they originally signaled the voters they would go and defend that line,even if it means bringing this case back to court and carrying it, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Failure will mean radical increases in state and city taxes and a crippling blow to the economy of the city and state, ensuring there will be no jobs for the students we’ll still be failing to educate.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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