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The Latest Round on School Funding

by Gail Robinson, Feb 17, 2005
 

Some New Yorkers seemed downright unhappy that the city's troubled school system could get billions of dollars in additional funding. "This is about an attempt by special interest groups to take more money from the private sector and give it to the public sector," said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "I see nothing good coming out of this."

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Others at a recent Manhattan Institute discussion on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case shared his view, grumbling about lazy teachers and dopey school bureaucrats. "However much money they get, they're only going to waste it," a lawyer said over a pre-lunch glass of wine.

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Most New Yorkers, though, were surely pleased with Judge Leland DeGrasse's order, issued on Valentines Day, to increase funding for the city Department of Education.

But before holding a ticker tape parade, consider what happened in New Jersey. It took more than 20 years before poorer school districts in the Garden State ever saw any money from a lawsuit, filed in the 1980s, challenging education funding there. At least one politician, New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, lost his job at least partly because of his efforts to bring more money to the state's neediest districts. And, despite some successes, many of those districts remain troubled today.

Now New York seems to be following its neighbor's example of long delays, tortured politics and uncertain outcomes.

The latest gyrations began on February 14 when DeGrasse issued a court order (in pdf format) that would require that:

  • New York City schools, which now have a budget of about $12.6 billion, receive an additional $5.7 billion a year in operating funds, phased in over the next four years;
  • The city schools get more than $9 billion in additional funding for capital projects -- new schools, maintaining existing ones, purchasing new technology and so on.
  • The state either appeals the ruling within 30 days or implement it within 90 days.

Governor George Pataki quickly took the final option, saying that the legislature and the governor, not a judge, should determine which schools get how much money. "It's a separation of powers issue," he told reporters.

DeGrasse's ruling, though, stems from the failure of elected officials to take on the problem. In 2003, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, upheld DeGrasse's 2001 ruling that the state's method of funding education deprives city students of their constitutional right to a "sound basic education." Albany then had a year to figure out how much money the city needed and where it should come from. When the state's political leaders failed to do that -- and seemed nowhere near any kind of agreement -- DeGrasse appointed a three-member panel to help him determine how the state could comply with his ruling. The judge's order essentially reflects the recommendations of that panel.

Like the referees, DeGrasse does not say how much of the additional funding would come from the state and how much from the city. DeGrasse notes that the city "urges this court to prohibit the state from requiring the city to pay any portion of the additional $5.63 billion." But he declined to do this, saying the Court of Appeals had determined "that it is for the legislature to determine how school funding should be distributed between city and state."

The disagreement over who should pay how much has been a major stumbling block to any settlement of the case, exacerbated by the fact that both the state and city already face multi-billion dollar deficits. Pataki has reportedly said he wants the city to pay 40 percent of any increase. The city wants to pay zero. City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo has gone so far as to say that if the city had to chip in, it would reject any of the additional state funds. "If we have to pay any portion of this, no thanks," Cardozo, said at a State Supreme Court hearing in January. "We simply cannot do it. It will hurt our children."

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity still hopes it can negotiate a settlement that would include not just New York City, but all school districts in the state. Although previous efforts at negotiation have failed, Michael Rebell of the campaign said perhaps DeGrasse's order would help. "I"m hoping that will change the dynamic a bit," he told Associated Press.

But some, such as Steven Sanders, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, wonder whether the governor simply wants to delay implementation of the ruling, for as long as possible " perhaps until he leaves office, whenever that might be. That would spare him the task of determining how to pay for the settlement.

In this go round, Pataki cannot appeal the court's earlier ruling that city students are deprived of their right to a sound, basic education. But he can challenge the court's ruling on how much money the Department of Education needs to correct that.

Pataki's decision to appeal brought quick criticism from people involved in the case and Democrats. "The governor now must no longer delay and not continue his appeals, thus ensuring children remain without the resources that have been clearly determined they need to succeed," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement.

And the Alliance for Quality Education launched a campaign called www.OurKidsCantWait.org to try to get Pataki and the legislature to come up with the money.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who hailed the judge's ruling, came in for criticism as well.

While faulting Pataki, InsideSchools.org, a web site on New York City schools published by Advocates for Children, said Bloomberg's refusal to spend any of the city's money is "particularly galling because he campaigned as the man who would fix the city's schools." The article by Clara Hemphill continues, "Bloomberg's insistence that he won't put a nickel more into the city's schools makes it almost impossible for negotiations toward a court settlement to proceed. Sure the city has budget problems, but helping the city's school children is more important than building a stadium on the West Side . . . or giving property owners a tax rebate."

In an interview with the New York Sun, mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer voiced similar sentiments. " The governor's proposal that the city pay 40 percent of the cost is ridiculous on its face," he said. "Bloomberg's position that the city pay zero is ridiculous."

But even though any money may be months, if not years, away, discussions continue on possible ways to spend the funds. The City Council has appointed a special commission, chaired by Anthony Alvarado, a former school administrator, to formulate recommendations. As part of its effort, the commission set up on-line hearings where, for two weeks in February, New Yorkers could offer their views on what to do with the money. In their comments, people called for better facilities, more school safety officers, improved after-school programs, providing more children with pre-kindergarten classes, small class sizes and so on.

Meanwhile, Inside Schools is asking its readers to offer their ideas on school funding.

Here again, though, many at the Manhattan Institute discussion took a different tact. Much of the audience agreed there was simply no money -- tax increases were not on the table -- and so panelists sought other solutions to the problems of New York City education. For example, Charles Brecher of the Citizen Budget Commission argued that the city did not need to spend billions of dollars to get the additional classrooms to reduce class size. Instead, it could operate schools year-round and shift students from crowded schools to less congested ones.

Jay Greene, another senior fellow at the institute, called for merit pay for teachers. The problem with previous increases in funding, he said, is that they were not tied to improved performance; instead, the worse schools did, the more money they got. "A system that financially rewards failure is more likely to produce failure," he said

Faced with such comments -- and at time an almost palpable hostility toward teachers among some in the crowd -- United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten sought to be conciliatory. She noted, for example, that the UFT would support pilot programs to test some of the ideas presented at the panel and said the UFT was going to run a charter school, a school that is publicly funded but privately run. But she was adamant that, for schools to improve, some of the additional funding had to be spent on ensuring a qualified teacher in every classroom. The way to do that, she said, is to raise salaries.

Given New Jersey's experience, though, the teachers might not want to delay a raise until the court-ordered money comes in. It could be a long wait.

 


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