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30th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 30, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

The specific issue in New York City’s public schools that has caused the most recent brouhaha is how much we spend on teaching our students. In this dust-up, all parties manage to come out on the wrong side.

Expenditures for education already have risen to more than $20 billion a year from $12.5 billion six years ago, without any objective indicator that would suggest that we are on the path to success.

There was a time when the mayor himself would criticize the $12.5 billion figure, asking not for more money, but questioning why such a huge expenditure didn’t yield satisfactory results. While campaigning to be given control of the schools back in 2002, Mr. Bloomberg suggested that business-like management combined with a “back-to-basics” curriculum would tame the perceived chaos in our schools.

This is the kind of talk that drew many of us, myself included, to support mayoral control. But once assuming control, Mr. Bloomberg’s initial precepts were abandoned, and the mayor joined in supporting the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, apparently convinced that with just a few billion more, all would be right.

By that time, the lawsuit had morphed from one that questioned whether the formula by which state money earmarked for schools was apportioned was fair to the city to one that asked whether enough money was being spent to provide a “sound, basic education,” a phrase that means something different to anyone you ask. Considering that the Empire State already boasted the highest per capita spending in the nation, a new definition of just how much is enough was sure to emerge.

The case concluded with agreements on future levels of spending, with the mayor and chancellor willing participants in the process. That was before the mortgage crisis, $4 gasoline, and the souring of the local economy. Now the mayor is reaping what he sowed. He played the CFE money game, and is still finding himself allegedly short of money.

The department of education has come up with a plan that proposes the deepest cuts to the schools that do the best. These schools disproportionately serve middle class and politically active segments of the population, who, the mayor thought, would reliably line up behind him. It didn’t work out that way.

This came to a head on Tuesday when the chancellor appeared before the Council’s education committee, and was flayed for “breaking his word” on school spending. With a well-orchestrated “Keep the Promises” press campaign financed by the unions hitting the airwaves, and a membership eager to end the headlines over their own spending scandals, the committee members eagerly eviscerated the hapless chancellor.

Mr. Klein has a point in wanting to restore control over his own budget. But he willingly participated in the process by which that control was compromised. He is right in wanting to insulate successful schools serving the middle class from disproportionate pain, but didn’t seem so concerned about these schools when he proposed his “fair school funding” plan that calls for cuts in many of them far deeper than anything now on the table.

Fair school funding was deferred as part of an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers last year, and the upcoming budget will be the last one in which these besieged schools will be “held harmless” from the Draconian cuts previously proposed. Is the chancellor now willing to back off, permanently, from the ill-conceived fair school funding plan, or is the newly found concern for the middle class schools nothing more than a short term ploy to win political support for a larger agenda?

In Tuesday’s hearing everyone offered different figures as to the extent of the cuts and even the amount of the education budget itself. There is plenty that can be cut in the city’s education budget - too many high priced administrators at the Tweed Courthouse, a bloated public relations operation spending more than 10 times as much as the old Board of Education spent on spin control, too many no-bid contracts, hiring pricey British evaluation teams to “rate” schools (not to mention their hotel bills), and on and on.

What we need is full budgetary transparency, encourage competitive bidding on contracts and public debate on the necessity of those contracts, and a full understanding that merely throwing money at the education system does not translate into results - the one thing that the experiment in mayoral control has proven beyond any doubt.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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