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8th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 8, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The future of the city’s schools is not being decided at the Tweed Courthouse or even at City Hall. Nor is it being determined by the progress of the negotiations of the teachers’ union contract. The direction the schools will take may not even be impacted in the tens of thousands of city classrooms.

The most important venue for educational change in New York City is in the Moot Courtroom at the Fordham Law School’s Lincoln Center campus. It is there that the three special masters appointed by State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse are hearing testimony that could decide the future of Gotham’s schools. The masters will make recommendations to Judge DeGrasse on what “remedies” he might impose in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. 
Despite a court mandate, the state Legislature failed to address the issue of school funding, preferring to let the judge do the work that they were elected to do. So instead of debates on the floor of the Senate and Assembly in Albany, the court is taking depositions in Manhattan.

The proceedings are being politicized in what might be termed a “spin room in cyberspace.”A week ago, the masters heard testimony by Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Please note that I am currently preparing a report for the Fordham Foundation for which I will receive a fee.

Before the sun set, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity viciously attacked not just the testimony, but Mr. Finn as well, questioning his expertise. Anyone can disagree with Mr. Finn on any number of issues, but his knowledge of education policy and practice is indisputable.As a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, he has the background to offer insight to the special masters.

The attack on Mr. Finn went so far as to assert that he is unqualified to comment because he is “not a member of the American Education Finance Association.” I was curious as to what criteria one needs to become a member of what I assumed must be an elite group of experts. I speculated that members of this society must possess particular academic qualifications, or perhaps submit to a rigorous interview by some august committee of fellows who must approve a membership application.

It turns out that all you need to be a member of the American Education Finance Association is $60 in your checking account. So I suppose that if I send in a check, I could then offer what the Campaign for Fiscal Equity would consider “expert” testimony.

What is most distressing about this is the tone of the attack, completely out of proportion to the nature of the debate. The central issue is what model should be used to determine the cost of a “sound basic education.” It’s a highly charged issue, and I appreciate that many people feel strongly about education — I certainly do — but all views should be respected.

Mr. Finn challenges the CFE position that educational professionals should be the ones to determine the amount needed to be spent.This is the so-called “professional judgment method.” Those who might financially benefit from the increased expenditures, Mr. Finn suggests, should not be the same people determining the levels of spending.

Instead, he suggests that the expenditures of “successful’ schools” be used as the model to determine the proper funding levels. In creating this model, it is necessary to correct the data to take into account that schools in well-to-do areas do well not just because of how much they spend, but dozens of other socio-economic factors that impact of pupil performance. For this view, Mr. Finn was savaged.

Mr. Finn’s testimony was hardly confrontational. It is sober and fair and represents one informed perspective. Other experts, brought in by the CFE,will offer opinions diametrically opposed to that of Mr. Finn. It is for the masters to weigh the facts and draw conclusions.

It is clear to me that this effort to secure additional funds for the schools has deteriorated into a schoolyard brawl. On Primary Day last month, the Alliance for Quality Education, a CFE affiliate, contrived to have a table set up in front of the polling place at Riverdale’s P.S. 81. A hand-made sign proclaimed “Save Our Schools — Bake Sale,” trying to fool voters entering the polls that parents were raising money for the school.

But these were not parents, but rather political operatives with ties to the Democratic Senate minority.They were luring prospective voters eager to help out their neighborhood school only to find that were being given a pitch that deceptively suggested that a senate hopeful, Assemblyman Steven Kaufman, opposed increased funding for the schools.

This isn’t true. Both Mr. Kaufman and his opponent, Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein, voted the same way in favor of the generous Assembly-sponsored plan. But AQE wanted Mr. Kaufman defeated because he pledged to sit with Senate Republicans. When pro-Kaufman forces hastily printed up literature informing voters of the trick, the AQE folks made a hasty exit.

The right way to fix the schools is not by deception but by an honest attempt to reach consensus on reform by encouraging respectful debate. This is the least that we owe our children, regardless of what plan is chosen to determine how much should be spent on their behalf.

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

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