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Citizens Union

Education

School Building: Part 2


SELF INFLICTED WOUNDS

The State Legislature created the School Construction Authority in 1988 to design and build schools. The Board of EducationĂŞs Division of School Facilities had had this responsibility and, according to many accounts, botched it. "The board needed 8 to 10 years to build a school, and organized crime dominated its construction projects," E.V. Kontorovich wrote in "City Journal." The board still has the job of planning schools.

Now, some say, the solution has become the problem. "The most consistent and effective arguments made against increased funding for school facilities are concern with poor management overall and a lack of accountability at the School Construction Authority," the New York City Partnership concluded in 1999. "There are strong reservations to providing more dollars to an entity that, in the perspective of many, has done an inadequate job with its existing funds."

And this was before the news of the multibillion cost overruns broke last year. "Costs of school construction exceed those for luxury buildings in mid-Manhattan," Mayor Bloomberg told a City Council committee. It costs almost $79,000 to create space for one student in a New York City public school, the New York Post reported, three times what it costs in New Jersey. Looking at it another way, a new school in New York costs about $425 to $450 a square foot, compared to between $180 and $210 in Chicago.

As expensive as it is, the construction and repair of schools are often done badly. A Brooklyn teenager died in 1998 when she was struck by a brick that fell from the roof of Brooklyn's PS 131. At new PS 24 in Sunset Park tiles seemed about to fall from the school's facade almost as soon as it was completed; construction crews rushed in to ring the school with scaffolding. Now, the facade is intact and the school scaffolding-free, but the problems boosted construction costs $12 million over budget.

Committees and experts have scrambled to find the reason for the high costs and bad work. The price of land in the city is partly to blame. By stressing that the city needed schools -- and needed them fast -- officials may have inadvertently sent a message to contractors that speed, not keeping costs down, was key. The construction boom since 1999 created a shortage of contractors and workers, pushing costs upward. Community opposition to a school in its midst can create delays and force the city to alter a schoolĂŞs design or location, further raising costs.

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

Last December, Chancellor Levy appointed a commission, headed by developer Peter M. Lehrer, to investigate the reasons for the high costs and recommend changes. In its findings released May 2, the commission, like many other critics, targeted the School Construction Authority, noting that the establishment of the authority created "a system with too little accountability and which has proved itself incapable of controlling the forever-escalating school construction costs." With two agencies involved in construction, the commission said, it is often difficult if not impossible to determine who is responsible for what.

Those comments echo statements previously made by Mayor Bloomberg who has said, "There is no accountability in the way schools are constructed or maintained." He has called for creating "clear lines of management" to handle school construction.

The Lehrer Commission would put control in the hands of the mayor, giving him the authority to appoint all three trustees of the School Construction Authority (the mayor now only appoints one).

The commission noted that the Board of Education has literally thousands of pages of design standards and rules that architects and contractors must comply with. At least some of these standards are intended to make schools last for generations, but the Lehrer Commission wondered whether spending more on construction now to avoid maintainance later is "always the wise choice."

In its report, the commission called for an array of measures that would streamline school construction rules, and thereby attract more contractors to bid on school projects, further lowering costs. The commission urged the city to build simpler schools with more standardized parts, such as doorknobs and clocks, and pointed to Chicago, which uses a small number of prototype designs for new schools. Overall, its recommendations, the report said, could lower costs for new schools to about $300 a square foot.

While the commission thought its design recommendation could create attractive schools serving children's need, education historian Diane Ravitch expressed doubts. "Standardization could mean those horrible boxes we got in the 1950s and 1960s," she told the New York Times.

Chancellor Levy, though, said he would throw the book of construction rules in the trash and replace them with updated standards.

Some earlier critics suggested the city government should not be in the construction business. The Manhattan Institute sees many problems at the School Construction Authority as endemic to bureaucracies: lack of accountability, apathetic workers, little incentive to excel. So, it calls for the Board of Education to adopt a "turnkey" model of public contracting. "In a turnkey system," explains Christopher Atamian, "the board hires a private-sector developer to build a school, with all the efficiencies private developers enjoy. When the job is done, the developer hands over the front door key to the Board of Ed. If the board likes what it sees, it can reward the developer with new contracts -1?2 a healthy incentive to work efficiently and for a fair price."

The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn has gotten money from private groups to begin to create a 400 seat school for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. The group, the first local development corporation to take on such a project, wants to buy an industrial building and refurbish it for the Cypress Hills Community School.

Others think the board should lease space, as opposed to building new schools, in order to bring new classrooms into the system quickly.

Meanwhile, despite the tight budget, the mayor has said he would like to put a school in the Tweed Courthouse, although some wonder whether a lavishly restored 19th century building next to City Hall is really the best place for dozens of raucous youngsters.

Bloomberg also sees his plans for Governors Island, which include building a flagship campus for the City University on the site of the former Coast Guard station, as having the potential to ease the school crowding crisis at lower grades. The space that will be freed, he has said, would be the equivalent of at least a dozen high schools.

INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS SHORT OF BUILDING

Aside from building, the other way to ease overcrowding is to make better use of what already exists. Schools could be occupied 12 months a year. Under such a plan, students would attend schools about 180 days a year as they do now but would have vacations at different times. So in one school, students could be divided into four groups with each attending schools for 45 days and then having 15 days off. This, one study estimates, would allow a building built for 750 students to serve 1,000. And, some say, it would also produce educational benefits since students would not forget as much over several shorter vacations as they now do over the long summer break. Parents and teachers, however, have resisted the idea.

The Educational Priorities Panel urges that some fifth grades be shifted from elementary schools to middle schools, since many middle schools tend to be less crowded. And the Lehrer Commission thinks too much space in new schools goes for kitchens, boilers, basements and so on. In response Levy said he would require that at least 60 percent of all space in new schools go for education purposes.

Few of these solutions will have produced much classroom space by next September or probably even the next. And so, when schools open in September, some Midwood students will still be setting their alarms for 5:30 a.m. and some students at PS 11 will learn reading, writing and arithmetic in a place originally intended for washing.

School Building Part 1

School Building


In Midwood High School in Brooklyn, some 4,000 teenagers crowd into a building designed in 1940 for 2,300, forcing the school to schedule classes in three overlapping shifts. Some students have to get up at dawn, and others are unable to participate in after-school activities such as sports teams or the school play. Some parents worry about their children having to travel so early (or so late).

For a while, relief seemed to be in sight for students at Midwood and Brooklyn's other overcrowded high schools. The Board of Education planned to build an annex in 2003 and a completely new high school in Sunset Park in 2004.

Now these plan are on hold, as is all new construction in Brooklyn high schools. They may be on hold forever, victims of the city budget crunch and of cost overruns on earlier school construction projects.

With budgets being cut for all city agencies, education has become an even more hot-button issue, and one of the most contentious issues within education is school construction. Proponents of new schools say that, without additional buildings, the city cannot decrease class size or create a good working environment for students and teachers. Decrepit schools, they say, send a message to students that the city does not consider them or their education to be important.

Critics point to costly projects and poor workmanship and say the issue is not only how much we spend on school construction, but who gets to spend it and how. Last week, a commission appointed by Schools Chancellor Harold Levy announced a series of recommendations it said could drastically slash construction costs for New York City schools and create more space. Levy said he would immediately implement many of the suggestions, such as streamlining construction procedures.

Meanwhile, the City Council has proposed a tax hike to finance school construction.The mayor acknowledges the need for new schools, but does not want the taxes.

CLASSROOM CRUNCH

In the 1890s,when immigrants from eastern and southern Europe flocked to New York, class size ballooned to more than 43 students. The Board of Education called for it to be set at 40, noting, "there are thousands of classes with registers ranging from 45 to 60."

A century later, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, an education advocacy group, found that the average city elementary school class has 28 students. This was a big improvement from the 19th century, but the average class size in the rest of the state is only 23, and many experts now believe that students in the lower elementary grades learn best in classes of 20 or fewer. To do this, though -- to cut average class size in New York City to 20 -- would require some 2,600 additional classrooms in the city, according to the Independent Budget Office. And each one of those new classrooms would need a new teacher.

But the need for new classrooms is not just a lofty educational ideal. The City Council estimates there are no seats for 42,000 youngsters currently enrolled in New York City public schools. Of course they do sit somewhere, crammed into aisles, at desks in rooms not intended as classrooms, or attending school at odd hours. The schools in Queens are so badly overcrowded that the state has allowed them to slash the day from seven to six periods, so they can run two sessions instead of one. And, by 2009, if nothing is done, there will be a shortage of 80,000 additional seats in Queens alone.

At P.S. 11 in Queens, students attend class in what had been a shower room; what once served as a drain remains in the middle of the room. And P.S. 19, also in Queens, already has become a kind of poster school for overcrowding. When United States Education Secretary Richard Riley visited a couple of years ago, he was aghast. "Every inch of the school is being used," he reported. "Children are learning in closets, in the hallway, and because there is no cafeteria, the children have to eat their lunch at their desks, and they have no playground."

This year, Council Speaker Gifford Miller followed in Riley's path and took reporters to P.S. 19 to dramatize the issue of overcrowding. An elementary school has become the new Charlotte Street for public officials, the educational equivalent of the former disaster area in the South Bronx.

With more than half of New York's 1,200 school buildings at least 50 years old, the city has been forced to use money that might have gone for additional classrooms to make repairs instead. Some of the worst conditions have been corrected; hundreds of schools, for example, are no longer heated with coal furnaces, as they were up until just a few years ago.

Many schools are still shabby, however. At the Clinton School for Writers and Artists, a middle school in Chelsea, for years the gym teacher had to tape down tiles that peel up from the deteriorating gym floor. Now that has been repaired somewhat but mold still persists on many of the school.s ceiling. Working bathrooms and water fountains are rare in many public schools, while roaches and mice can be common. Science labs and other equipment, including computers and libraries, tend to be outmoded or scanty.

At schools throughout the city, officials have erected temporary fabricated classrooms nearby that no one really thinks are temporary. These unattractive buildings, euphemistically dubbed minischools, cut into playground space and are prone to leaks.

CROWDING AND ACHIEVEMENT

A crumbling, crowded school is not necessarily a bad school, any more than an ample modern facility guarantees quality instruction. Midwood, for example, has among the highest test scores of any high school in the city, and has won national recognition for the number of its students who have become semifinalists in the national Intel Science Search.

In fact, some overcrowded schools boast a particularly high level of academic achievement, according to a 1995 Teachers College study. "Schools which have high academic achievement attract more students and therefore are overcrowded," Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz, the studyĂŞs co-chair said. However, youngsters in overcrowded schools with a large number of low-income students scored lower on reading and mathematics tests than similar students in less crowded schools. And almost 88 percent of teachers at schools stuffed with students said overcrowding was a very important issue.

Students may not be too adversely affected when a school is operating at perhaps 105 percent of capacity, says Noreen Connell, executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition that pushes to improve public education. But when a school has 20 percent more students than it is designed for, she says, academic work is sure to suffer.

Links may also exist between a crumbling building and poor student morale. A study of District of Columbia schools found that students attending schools in poor condition had test scores six percent below their counterparts attending schools in fair condition and 11 percent lower than those fortunate enough to go to a school in excellent shape. "The tacit message of the urban schools is not lost on students," a Carnegie Foundation report concluded in 1988. "It bespeaks neglect, and students' conduct seems simply an extension of the physical environment that surrounds them."

GOING, GOING, ALMOST GONE

Faced with crowded and deteriorating schools, then-Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew presented an $11 billion plan for building and repair in 1998.

The City Council and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani immediately assailed the Crew plan as too large. Six months later, after much wheeling and dealing, the Board of Education adopted a $7 billion, five-year plan for 32 projects, creating 33,000 new seats, almost two thirds of which would be in Queens. The School Construction Authority began building the schools.

Even before September 11 and the economic decline, this plan seemed destined to fall short of its original goals, largely because of huge cost overruns. The real figures dribbled out for much of last year, but, by December, the Board of Education knew that it was $2.3 billion short. To complete the capitol plan, the board needed $4.3 billion; it had only $1.9 billion.

Schools Chancellor Harold Levy then cut back the number of new schools to 21, with Queens again getting the lion's share. The rest would be delayed at least until the start of a new five-year plan. As he proposed the reduction, Levy said, "the kind of choices we have to make are too awful for words."

Five months later, that old plan now seems almost lavish. In February, Mayor Bloomberg called for a 20 percent cut in the school capital budget, amounting to a reduction of $692 million. This could mean that only 11 schools out of the original 32 would be built before 2005.

In response, the City Council has proposed a surcharge on the local income tax to pay for new schools. This would fund construction of 10 new high schools and for converting space at existing City University of New York campuses to 10 more high schools, if and when the university builds a flagship campus on Governors Island. The council plan also calls for 14 additional elementary schools, as well as school libraries, science labs and computers. The city would borrow $5 billion for projects and use the tax to finance the debt.

Bloomberg has resisted tax hikes, saying they will encourage people to leave New York, and has not made an exception for this one. Speaker Gifford Miller, who is behind the surcharge proposal, argues that a deteriorating, poorly performing school system is far more likely to force people from the city than a modest tax increase. Republican City Councilmember Andrew Lanza says that the city would be able to build schools without a tax hike if the agencies responsible for school construction did not waste so much money. (See Lanza's essay on Searchlight.)

Others think Albany could help. The Educational Priorities Panel and other New York City groups say the state shortchanges the city on construction money, much as it does on funds to operate the schools. In particular, says Noreen Connell of the panel, Albany uses a different formula to determine whether a school is needed for New York City than it uses for districts in much of the rest of the state. As a result, while New York City got about $159 a student in building aid from Albany between 1992 and 1999, the districts in the rest of the state (omitting the five biggest cities) got $347 a student.

SELF INFLICTED WOUNDS

The State Legislature created the School Construction Authority in 1988 to design and build schools. The Board of EducationĂŞs Division of School Facilities had had this responsibility and, according to many accounts, botched it. "The board needed 8 to 10 years to build a school, and organized crime dominated its construction projects," E.V. Kontorovich wrote in "City Journal." The board still has the job of planning schools.

Now, some say, the solution has become the problem. "The most consistent and effective arguments made against increased funding for school facilities are concern with poor management overall and a lack of accountability at the School Construction Authority," the New York City Partnership concluded in 1999. "There are strong reservations to providing more dollars to an entity that, in the perspective of many, has done an inadequate job with its existing funds."

And this was before the news of the multibillion cost overruns broke last year. "Costs of school construction exceed those for luxury buildings in mid-Manhattan," Mayor Bloomberg told a City Council committee. It costs almost $79,000 to create space for one student in a New York City public school, the New York Post reported, three times what it costs in New Jersey. Looking at it another way, a new school in New York costs about $425 to $450 a square foot, compared to between $180 and $210 in Chicago.

As expensive as it is, the construction and repair of schools are often done badly. A Brooklyn teenager died in 1998 when she was struck by a brick that fell from the roof of Brooklyn's PS 131. At new PS 24 in Sunset Park tiles seemed about to fall from the school's facade almost as soon as it was completed; construction crews rushed in to ring the school with scaffolding. Now, the facade is intact and the school scaffolding-free, but the problems boosted construction costs $12 million over budget.

Committees and experts have scrambled to find the reason for the high costs and bad work. The price of land in the city is partly to blame. By stressing that the city needed schools -- and needed them fast -- officials may have inadvertently sent a message to contractors that speed, not keeping costs down, was key. The construction boom since 1999 created a shortage of contractors and workers, pushing costs upward. Community opposition to a school in its midst can create delays and force the city to alter a schoolĂŞs design or location, further raising costs.

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

Last December, Chancellor Levy appointed a commission, headed by developer Peter M. Lehrer, to investigate the reasons for the high costs and recommend changes. In its findings released May 2, the commission, like many other critics, targeted the School Construction Authority, noting that the establishment of the authority created "a system with too little accountability and which has proved itself incapable of controlling the forever-escalating school construction costs." With two agencies involved in construction, the commission said, it is often difficult if not impossible to determine who is responsible for what.

Those comments echo statements previously made by Mayor Bloomberg who has said, "There is no accountability in the way schools are constructed or maintained." He has called for creating "clear lines of management" to handle school construction.

The Lehrer Commission would put control in the hands of the mayor, giving him the authority to appoint all three trustees of the School Construction Authority (the mayor now only appoints one).

The commission noted that the Board of Education has literally thousands of pages of design standards and rules that architects and contractors must comply with. At least some of these standards are intended to make schools last for generations, but the Lehrer Commission wondered whether spending more on construction now to avoid maintainance later is "always the wise choice."

In its report, the commission called for an array of measures that would streamline school construction rules, and thereby attract more contractors to bid on school projects, further lowering costs. The commission urged the city to build simpler schools with more standardized parts, such as doorknobs and clocks, and pointed to Chicago, which uses a small number of prototype designs for new schools. Overall, its recommendations, the report said, could lower costs for new schools to about $300 a square foot.

While the commission thought its design recommendation could create attractive schools serving children's need, education historian Diane Ravitch expressed doubts. "Standardization could mean those horrible boxes we got in the 1950s and 1960s," she told the New York Times.

Chancellor Levy, though, said he would throw the book of construction rules in the trash and replace them with updated standards.

Some earlier critics suggested the city government should not be in the construction business. The Manhattan Institute sees many problems at the School Construction Authority as endemic to bureaucracies: lack of accountability, apathetic workers, little incentive to excel. So, it calls for the Board of Education to adopt a "turnkey" model of public contracting. "In a turnkey system," explains Christopher Atamian, "the board hires a private-sector developer to build a school, with all the efficiencies private developers enjoy. When the job is done, the developer hands over the front door key to the Board of Ed. If the board likes what it sees, it can reward the developer with new contracts -1?2 a healthy incentive to work efficiently and for a fair price."

The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn has gotten money from private groups to begin to create a 400 seat school for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. The group, the first local development corporation to take on such a project, wants to buy an industrial building and refurbish it for the Cypress Hills Community School.

Others think the board should lease space, as opposed to building new schools, in order to bring new classrooms into the system quickly.

Meanwhile, despite the tight budget, the mayor has said he would like to put a school in the Tweed Courthouse, although some wonder whether a lavishly restored 19th century building next to City Hall is really the best place for dozens of raucous youngsters.

Bloomberg also sees his plans for Governors Island, which include building a flagship campus for the City University on the site of the former Coast Guard station, as having the potential to ease the school crowding crisis at lower grades. The space that will be freed, he has said, would be the equivalent of at least a dozen high schools.

INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS SHORT OF BUILDING

Aside from building, the other way to ease overcrowding is to make better use of what already exists. Schools could be occupied 12 months a year. Under such a plan, students would attend schools about 180 days a year as they do now but would have vacations at different times. So in one school, students could be divided into four groups with each attending schools for 45 days and then having 15 days off. This, one study estimates, would allow a building built for 750 students to serve 1,000. And, some say, it would also produce educational benefits since students would not forget as much over several shorter vacations as they now do over the long summer break. Parents and teachers, however, have resisted the idea.

The Educational Priorities Panel urges that some fifth grades be shifted from elementary schools to middle schools, since many middle schools tend to be less crowded. And the Lehrer Commission thinks too much space in new schools goes for kitchens., boilers, basements and so on. In response Levy said he would require that at least 60 percent of all space in new schools go for education purposes.

Few of these solutions will have produced much classroom space by next September or probably even the next. And so, when schools open in September, some Midwood students will still be setting their alarms for 5:30 a.m. and some students at PS 11 will learn reading, writing and arithmetic in a place originally intended for washing.

School Building Part 2

 

Community School Boards' Uncertain Future


Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been lobbying hard to get rid of both the central Board of Education and the 32 local school boards. It seems clear that the Board of Education's days are numbered: Governor George Pataki and the state legislature are on the verge of a deal that will turn control of the school system over to the mayor and a revamped, expanded board where the mayor has the majority of appointees. But no one seems to know whether there will be a change to the local boards.

For one thing, while the members of the central board are appointed, the local school board members are elected, and the legislature cannot eliminate such a body without approval from the Department of Justice (which is still pending). For another, there still seems to be considerable disagreement about the value of the local boards, as well as about what, if any, governing structure should take their place.

School board elections planned for this month were postponed a year in anticipation of restructuring. But sources in Albany say that the community school board status quo may have an unlikely ally: the senate's Republican m ajority. The city's Republican senators represent districts where community school boards are functioning well. They may hold up or even block changes to the boards.

Community school boards have shared accountability for running the schools since 1969. In the midst of great public concern about equal educational opportunity, the state legislature established the 32 community school districts and elected boards to decentralize control of the city schools and to give local communities a significant voice in who ran their schools and how. Community school boards back then had the power to hire community superintendents, principals, and assistant principals, as well as to approve school budgets.

In 1997, however, in an attempt to create greater system-wide accountability, the legislature stripped local boards of these responsibilities, re-centralizing power with the chancellor and superintendents, and leaving the boards with policy setting duties but no real authority.

Mayor Bloomberg would replace the current boards with district and borough-wide advisory committees that include parents. This makes sense, say advocates of mayoral control, because, above all, the new governance scheme must entail crystal-clear lines of authority and accountability throughout the school system. "The worst case," says Raymond Domanico, senior education advisor for the Industrial Areas Foundation, Metro New York and a supporter of direct mayoral control and accountability, "would be for Albany to establish mayoral control but for the details of the plan to undermine it."

Domanico opposes local boards because they create the risk of confusion: "Who does the superintendent report to, the chancellor or the school board? It has to be clear. The school system must have the power it needs to ensure the best-prepared professionals in its schools."

Many of the city's school boards set sound policies and support district efforts. But community school boards have long sparked criticism and complaints. School boards have been accused of patronage and corruption, though rumors far exceed proven incidents. School board elections, held in May rather than November, turn out fewer than five percent of eligible voters. And school boards themselves complain of being trivialized by the school system as a whole, especially since they lost their decision-making powers, and of being paralyzed by in-fighting factions.

Judy Baum from Advocates for Children, who has written widely on school board elections, says, "Current community school board performance has been uneven. The successes of some ought to be the model for others. The best boards have garnered lots of voter support through energetic campaigns and provide for parent and public input throughout their tenure. They have chosen leadership through careful selection processes and have tended to stay away from local power politics." The successful boards have also created opportunities for a diverse population to serve the community in public office, Baum says.

While some boards have been avenues for greater community involvement in schools, many have not. As one Brooklyn principal explained, members frequently come to school boards "with political rather than educational agendas." For this reason, she says, they are as often a hindrance as a help. If the school boards were eliminated, she says, "it wouldn't make a heck of a lot of difference" to education in her district.

Rodney Saunders, a Bronx District 11 school-board member for the past nine years and former board president, disagrees that school boards have outlived their usefulness. The community school boards still serve the crucial function of providing advocacy for parents and community schools, he says. School board members provide a history and perspective on the schools that parents often lack and a connection with the community that will be lost. He worries that the proposed change in the governance structure "would put people in control of the schools who are virtually invisible to parents."

Saunders believes instead that community school boards need real power and authority -- like the school boards elsewhere in the state. From the beginning, Saunders charges, school boards were too handicapped to get results. He would like to see a system that channeled state funding directly to the community school districts and made community school boards accountable to the State Education Department for effective spending to fulfill the state's educational mandates. The mayor would the be accountable for the city's share of school funding, which would cover teachers' salaries, transportation, facilities, and safety.

Karen Feuer, the president of Manhattan's Community School Board 2, also believes that the current hobbled school boards are not the best way to support education locally. With Anne Mackinnon of Community School Board 22 in Brooklyn, she has proposed dissolving community school boards and replacing them with district advisory boards to improve public oversight of the schools. The advisory boards would be chosen by stakeholder groups and made up of "qualified individuals with a genuine interest in the educational success of the district" with the expertise to support and challenge the superintendent, ideally in public conversations. If some of these experts are parents, all the better, Feuer says. However, she believes that parents' greatest involvement and influence should be focused at "the most local level" -- their own children's schools -- through the variety of venues that already exist for that involvement: school leadership teams, parents' associations, Parents' Council, and so on. That's where parents should use pressure and support to help schools to set and meet their own goals.

Governance is not a panacea, Feuer warns. As she and others point out, whatever the governance change, it will not, by itself, solve the school system's woes. Whoever is in charge at each level of the school system must make it a priority to get well-prepared teachers and principals into the schools and make sure they have what they need to do their jobs.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

To Test or Not To Test?


Students at two alternative New York City public schools recently joined a small but growing national protest against high-stakes testing by boycotting the state-administered eighth-grade exams. In the belief that standardized tests jeopardize their schools' philosophies of teaching and learning, middle-school students from the Institute for Collaborative Education and the School of the Future, both in Manhattan, sat out the tests with permission from their parents. Similar boycotts took place around the state last year; in Scarsdale, for example, a majority of students boycotted the same eighth-grade tests arguing that test preparation dilutes their schools' normally more rigorous curricula.

These protests--and a lot of grumbling among parents and educators--have been provoked by recent changes in state education policy giving standardized testing a much more prominent role in New York's educational program. During the 1990s, as part of a larger reform to ensure that all students have the opportunity to achieve at the same high levels, the state created a set of standards that outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, as well as at high school graduation. It also designed a new set of examinations to assess whether students are meeting those standards. More recently, as part of a new System of Accountability for Student Success, schools have begun to receive state-set targets for school improvement based on their students' performance on these exams. Sanctions will be imposed on schools not meeting targets.

New York City public elementary and middle school students now take either city- or state-administered standardized tests each year from third through eighth grade. In addition to helping superintendents, principals, and teachers diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of teaching and learning in their classrooms, test scores determine whether students are promoted to the next grade and whether they are required to attend summer school. Principals are eligible for bonuses for improving test scores in their schools.

The state also abolished an old two-tiered graduation requirement that allowed many students to receive diplomas with little more than middle-school-level reading and math skills. It has phased in the requirement that, to graduate, all high school students must pass five Regents exams, once taken only by college-bound students. While the move toward ensuring a meaningful diploma for all graduates was widely applauded, many nevertheless worry about the high-stakes nature of the requirement. Students who fail just one of the exams are denied a diploma no matter what the quality of their class work. New York City's drop-out rate has climbed slowly but steadily since the Regents requirement.

The uniformity of the requirement also disturbs some educators. Those associated with vocational and alternative schools, for example, argue that all students' interests are not best served by preparing for Regents exams. In fact, a statewide coalition of 28 alternative schools, known as the New York Performance Standards Consortium, filed suit in state court last summer against the State Education Department and Commissioner Richard Mills after a waiver from testing, granted them by the previous state education commissioner, was revoked. These schools argue that their own innovative, and, in some cases, celebrated, philosophies, curricula, and assessment systems will be drastically compromised if they are forced to comply with the testing mandate. The group advocates a school-based "performance assessment system", which, it argues, is not only a more rigorous and accurate gauge of student learning but also contributes rather than detracts from effective teaching and learning. Mills says these assessments do not meet standards of validity and reliability.

These and other opponents of testing believe that standardized tests are inaccurate measures of student learning, that no single measure should be used to make important educational decisions. They argue that it is unfair to create high stakes for students because so many factors other than student effort and ability (e.g., teacher experience, test-curriculum alignment, tests' margins of error, and student socioeconomic status) affect testing outcomes. They worry that testing often penalizes students, especially minorities, who have received an inadequate education. They also believe that testing policies have a detrimental effect on teaching Ü tempting, or in some cases forcing, teachers to narrow their curricula to what is being tested and spending valuable classroom time on test preparation.

Testing proponents, on the other hand, argue that standardized testing ensures that all students are being held to the same standards, identifies students who need extra help, and shows whether schools are meeting the needs of all their students. They say that testing creates greater school accountability by regularly measuring student performance and publicizing outcome data, and that high-stakes testing motivates students and schools by creating goals and setting consequences for those not meeting them.

Meanwhile, as the testing debate goes on, a state education department analysis of test-score data, released at the end of March, for the first time broke down elementary and middle school test results by race and ethnicity. Overall, it found a significant performance gap--with white and Asian students scoring much better than black and Hispanic students in both English and math. (For complete test-score data, see the full 2002 statewide school report card.)

Such data, reported in New York a year before it will be required nationwide by the new federal education law, illustrates both the benefits and the dangers of standardized tests. On the one hand, testing data provide important evidence of a serious systemic problem that must be solved; we must insist that our schools learn to educate black and Hispanic students as well as white and Asian students. On the other hand, no amount of testing, by itself, will solve this problem, so we must think carefully about whether, given the systemic nature of the problem and the snowballing effects of failure, high-stakes testing causes individual students to suffer unnecessarily.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

Epic: An Experiment In Arts Education


What are the arts for? What do they do?

These are loaded questions, implying that the arts should provide tangible benefits in order to justify their existence. But how do you quantify a string quartet? How can you take the measure of a new play? What is the replacement value of a "priceless" Vermeer or Van Dyck?

Questions about the value of the arts come into focus when we speak of arts education. In addition to providing intellectual and creative stimuli, arts education has been shown in several high-profile studies to improve students' overall academic performance. Perhaps this helps to explain why former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (hardly known for his art-for-art's-sake stance) invested heavily in arts education through Project "Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools" (Project A.R.T.S.). Another reason that the city supports arts education has been suggested by Giuliani's Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, Schuyler Chapin, who argues that such programming "creates future audiences and patrons for our wonderful theaters, concert halls and museums"--institutions that fuel the city's $12-billion cultural engine.

Created in 1997 under the auspices of Chancellor Rudy Crew, Project A.R.T.S. is an incentive program that encourages schools to rebuild their arts programs, which had been gutted in previous years. Under Project A.R.T.S, all of New York's 1100 schools became eligible for substantial funding to support arts instruction--whether through professional development, programming, or the purchase of equipment and resources. Individual school districts were given the choice of how to allocate the funds.

Since September 11, however, many schools' arts budgets have been frozen. The new city budget, passed at the end of December, eliminates $766 million in spending, including substantial cuts to cultural programs (although the City Council did manage to restore some of the mayor's proposed cuts). This will undoubtedly have an impact on school arts programs, as well as the 300 cultural organizations that offer their services to the city's schools, and depend upon such programs as an important revenue source.

The Manhattan-based Epic Theatre Center is fortunate in some ways; they have no pre-September 11 yardstick against which to measure their current financial health. They were in the first days of operation during the week of the World Trade Center attacks--just beginning to embark on their education program-- when the attacks threw their efforts into high gear. Fueled by the desire to "do something," the group of actors, directors, and writers--many among them experienced teaching artists--got together to brainstorm about how they might help the city's public schools deal with the fallout. "It was not like 'We've got to save the kids,' but 'We've got to create public forums,'" Epic's artistic director, Ron Russell, recalls. "If Epic had owned a space we'd have flung the doors open: 'Please come in, let's talk.' That's why we went right into the schools."

Epic's artists came up with a simple classroom exercise, a variation on an actor's probing into his or her character's motivations and desires. On September 14 they were in a classroom in I.S. 25, in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city. They asked students to recall September 10, and then asked them to shout out answers to three questions--what they wanted, what they loved, and what they needed on that day. They then asked students to answer those questions in the present--with the knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks. Finally, they asked them to answer these questions as if it were a year later. The artists then conducted the students in creating a "word symphony," or group poem, from the responses.

Shaheen Vaaz, an actor in the group, recalls that the answers varied wildly; before 9/11, students wanted the usual things--no homework, shopping, chicken; after 9/11, "food stayed constant," Vaaz tells me, but now students added that they wanted the twin towers back, world peace, or bombs--in addition to chicken. "When I listen to kids talk about 9/11," Russell says, "they talk as if it happened somewhere else--I think what they're thinking of is that visual image"--of the planes striking the towers that played incessantly on television for weeks. "Theater, because it's based in an oral tradition, can open up experience, create a place for conversation to happen."

For an emerging theater like Epic, going into schools is a way to generate income and visibility. It's also a way to counter the predominance of a movie-and-television driven culture--to build support "not just for our theater, but the theater," as Russell puts is. Epic created the "Antigone-in-Progress" project to involve students in every aspect of play production--research and discussion, writing and adapting, rehearsal and performance. First, Epic's actors go to classrooms and perform a new translation and adaptation of Sophocles 5th-century text, in which the Chorus's traditional role as commentator is replaced by an on-the-scene reporter, who solicits responses from the students as the clash between King Creon and the recalcitrant Antigone plays out. Students then spend several weeks working with teaching artists to develop their own, contemporary version of the play, which they then perform with Epic's actors.

"We wanted to figure out how to involve civic education," Vaaz says of the project. The central conflict of Antigone--between the individual and the group--fits into the logic of a classroom, where students are asked to conform to the needs of the class as a whole, and submit to the teacher's authority. In considering how to resolve Antigone and Creon's conflicting priorities, students are encouraged to think about compromise, and about their own roles as individuals in their societies--the classroom, their neighborhood, the city. "At first," Vaaz tells me, "students are always for Antigone, saying, 'Yeah, I'd want to bury my brother too.'" The Epic actors try to "un-black-and-white" the conflict by asking the students if they'd still side with Antigone if her brother had done something very bad--what if he were a terrorist, for example? Students are encouraged to come up with their own notion of a Chorus, whether that be a rap group, the media, or a group of their peers.

At Epic's education fundraiser in early December, a group of sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders from the East Harlem School presented scenes from their Antigone, including a potent staging of the battle between Oedipus' two sons, who kill each other, Sophocles records, "in a twofold blow." With far more decorum than might be expected from young boys given permission to fight, the two actors face off and slay one another, collapsing to the stage in a beautifully synchronized , slow-motion fall. An imposing figure--a character of the students' own invention--walks on and surveys the carnage. "I am the 'Eye,'" she says, "I see the past and the future." It's an amazingly theatrical moment, by any standards.

Epic has survived its first few months on income from ticket sales, school programs, and donations of $100 or less. They have been able to bring "Antigone-in-Progress" to four public schools, and hope to do more. They received many letters of thanks from teachers and students after their work in classrooms in September, and have also won the support of two luminaries in the education reform movement--Jonathan Kozol, a writer and educator, and Eric Booth, an actor, director, and Educator, who argues in favor of arts Education in his essay on the College Board Web site, "Art in the Every Day: Can It Change our Schools?":

"In challenging the standard thinking of the place of art in schools, we need to describe the 'skills of art' as the essential learning skills, capacities that underlie the 3Rs and curriculum material. These 'basic basics' include: intrinsic motivation to learn, the capacity to concentrate, the ability to make connections between and across subjects, confidence in your own judgment, the ability to respond effectively, the facility to use and understand metaphor, and the yearning for 'more.' These learning essentials are developed in the arts and express themselves in the works of art we recognize and value, as well as in other media of life (our work, our families, our leisure time, our everyday routines) that we usually overlook for their creative potential. Thus, to truly wrestle with change in our schools, perhaps we need to see -- and implement -- the arts as a fundamental, rather than a peripheral, focus for learning."

$50 Million Fund For The Arts

I reported last month on "Going on with the Show," the Center for an Urban Future's November 19 survey of how the city's arts groups have fared since September 11. The survey concluded that, with drops in ticket sales and funding, "nonprofit arts organizations are entering their rockiest period in over 30 years." On the day after the report's publication, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced the creation of a $50 million fund to assist those arts and cultural organizations that have been directly affected by the World Trade Center attacks. William G. Bowen, the president of the Foundation, expressed his desire that Mellon's actions will prompt other funders to support the city's museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations "that so powerfully help to define New York City's special qualities." Some of the $50 million will benefit the city's parks, which, in the words of Mellon Financial Vice President, Dennis Sullivan, "served such an important role in the immediate aftermath of the September events."

 

Higher Education, Lower Budget


Like nearly every institution in New York, the City University of New York was damaged by the events of September 11. There were 111 students or alumni from John Jay College who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and 81 from the College of Staten Island. The Borough of Manhattan Community College, two blocks away from Ground Zero, shut down for three weeks, one of its buildings destroyed, the other taken over by rescue teams as a command center. When the school finally reopened, 1,300 of its students decided not to return.

But the personal tragedies and the physical damage were not the only ways that City University has been affected. The university's fiscal well-being, already precarious, was further weakened by the attack.

It is a terrible irony that, in addition to the jolt that the Borough of Manhattan Community College suffered because of the events of September 11, it will also be asked to cut spending by more than four million dollars. This will mean a reduction in teaching staff, which will cause the cancellation of some classes, which will result in even fewer students. Fewer students mean less money in state tuition aid. So, Antonio Perez, the president, estimates his college will lose an additional $20 million in tuition and tuition aid as students leave the school -- not just because of the World Trade Center tragedy, but now because of the cutbacks.

A RECORD OF EXCELLENCE

CUNY has an incredible record of success. Nine of its doctoral programs are ranked in the top 20 in the nation. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice graduate program ranks number one in the nation, and Baruch's School of Business and Hunter's School of Social Work are highly rated. Numerous faculty members have won national prizes.

Above all, CUNY is the place of opportunity for the poor and working people of New York. Students who graduate from CUNY are able to become productive citizens with jobS paying taxes, buying homes and raising children in the city.

A MEDIOCRE BUDGET

But the excellence of the City University of New York has not swayed public officials when it comes to the budget. In August, the state legislature passed a bare-bones budget that gave $733.2 million to the City University of New York, down from a billion dollars ten years ago, and an increase of only $2.9 million in state aid from last year. (This included a cut of $4.9 million for the senior colleges and an increase of $7.8 million for the community colleges.) Chancellor Matthew Goldstein had already been lobbying to restore funding to CUNY's senior colleges. Then, on September 11, the situation got much worse. Projections for state revenues for the year spiraled down, and the state supplemental budget that has just been passed did not include CUNY. Because of declining revenues, the mayor has asked most city programs to cut spending by 15 percent during this fiscal year.

These cuts come on top of cutbacks handed to CUNY since the fiscal crisis in the mid 1970s. From 1980 to 1997, CUNY funding from the state decreased 40 percent in constant dollars. In the 1990s, New York State ranked last in the country in the percentage increase in state and local funding for higher education, according to the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education,

The cuts have had a powerful effect. Between the years 1976 and 2000, the full-time CUNY faculty was reduced by half, from 11,268 to 5,594, so that 60 percent of all classes are now taught by part-time faculty. Tuition increased by 93 percent from 1988 to 1997, putting it above the national average for public universities.

The 11 senior colleges and graduate programs of CUNY are supported by the state, while the six community colleges and the associate degree programs at four senior colleges are funded principally by the city. Because of this funding arrangement, the senior colleges, while not protected from state funding reductions, have been protected from city cuts.

The six community colleges have not been so fortunate and have suffered from city cutbacks throughout the Giuliani administration. In 1990, the city provided 43 percent of the funding for operating costs at the community colleges. It now provides only 21 percent. The difference has been made up by raising tuition. It is now $2,500 a year for a full-time student.

THE LATEST ROUND

While the mayor recognized the importance of primary and secondary education and assigned only a 2.5 percent cut to the school system, he failed to give the CUNY community colleges a similar reprieve from his 15 percent across-the-board cuts. This means the community colleges will have to cut spending by $19.2 million this year.

These cutbacks will leave CUNY less able to offer the education that New Yorkers need.

Lynne Weikart, an associate professor at Baruch College School of Public Affairs, teaches budgeting and financial management.

Flunking Schools


 

One of the school system's most vexing problems is what to do to improve schools that are not functioning. Over the past decade, a quarter of all public schools in New York City at one time or another have been officially declared to be failing. These are called SURR schools, or schools under registration review.

At one of these schools, I visited a small elementary school art class. The class was in total chaos, with children standing on desks and jumping off them, running around and screaming. The teacher was yelling too. The teacher told us she had "only" been with the class for three months and that, as a substitute, she did not know the children's names and had never been given a roster, despite having asked for it several times.

Unfortunately, educators know this kind of situation well.

WHY SCHOOLS FAIL

What makes a failing school? Many things, say state investigators, including:

  • Ineffective instructional methods
  • Inadequate planning
  • Insufficient supplies and materials
  • Uncertified and inexperienced teachers
  • Inadequate instructional leadership
  • Poor communication among administrators and teachers
  • Low academic standards
  • Curriculum deficiencies
  • Insufficient parent involvement
  • Lack of a consistent, uniformly applied student behavior policy
  • Inadequate student supervision
  • Inadequate teacher supervision
  • Inadequate library resources
  • Poor staff morale
  • Excessive principal turnover
  • Deficiencies in the English as a second language and bilingual programs
  • Special education deficiencies

The Board of Education was slow to respond to these problems. There was little overall planning or accountability until former Chancellor Rudy Crew created the "Chancellor's District", also called District 85 which grouped the worst schools together to supervise their improvement. These schools roughly correspond to those on the SURR list.

TO SURR WITHOUT LOVE

In 1989, New York State devised the scheme for putting low performing schools under "registration review." The targeted schools, which get some extra funds and assistance in curriculum and planning, are those that are farthest from meeting the state's performance standards according to their students' standardized test scores, or have been identified as being "poor learning environments." If the schools do not improve, they are shut down.

Since 1989, roughly 250 New York City public schools have been placed on the SURR list. Currently, 114 schools, 98 of them in New York City, are under registration review.

Just how bad at least some of these schools must be becomes clear when one looks at school performance overall. Throughout New York State, only 60 percent of fourth graders in public schools meet state standards for both reading and math. In New York City's SURR schools, only 10 percent of the fourth graders meet the standards.

The SURR process was supposed to improve the poorly performing schools, not shut them down. Critics, though, say this is not happening.

A new study, "The Tip of the Iceberg" by Joseph Viteritti and Kevin Kosar of New York University, published by the Manhattan Institute, states that on average, schools that do not improve remain on the SURR list for nine years before finally being closed. During this time, of course, thousands of students remain enrolled in what the state itself calls a poor learning environment.

While schools that improved enough to be removed from the list continue to do better than SURR schools, the study found, the majority of students in those former SURR schools still perform well below acceptable academic levels. The report also questions whether the SURR system masks the "iceberg" of general low performance in all city schools. In sum, argues the report, 70 percent or more of the students read below state standards in over a third of city schools.

The state admits that there needs to be quicker, more accurate data collection and evaluation of schools. (The state's role in identifying and improving low-performing schools is the subject of pending litigation). But the State Education Department officially declares that "the registration review process works," according to its August 2000 "Registration Review Report. It noted that 96 schools have been removed from the list since 1990, and the removal rate is accelerating. Only 17 were taken off from 1990 to 1995, whereas 79 were removed over the next five years. In December, 2000, an additional 25 schools on the state list were removed, the most ever in a single year, because test scores had moved them above the SURR threshold.

Critics contend that the removal rate says little about the quality of the schools. A school's students can have very low scores and the school can still be above the threshold for SURR. Further, they argue, test scores are subject to fluctuation and a statistical upward "blip" is likely among schools at the very bottom. Therefore, schools might rotate off the list to be replaced by others more because of probability than progress.

While he was a state regent, Harold Levy took steps (that he has backed away from since becoming chancellor) that would require SURR schools to employ only certified teachers. (Ten percent of city teachers are not certified, and many more teach outside their area of expertise.) The school system also reached an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers that makes teachers in SURR schools eligible for extra pay. Experienced teachers, however, have been slow to respond to incentives, and so most of the certified teaches in SURR schools are new teachers, many of whom have only the minimal preparation offered under a new state program. Thus, students in failing schools still get the least experienced and least prepared teachers.

THE ALTERNATIVES

Different states have taken varying approaches to the problem of failing schools. For most of the 1990s, New York focused on painstaking school-by-school reform and generally avoided state takeovers of entire districts. Other states, such as New Jersey, took over districts, including Newark and Jersey City, but failed to significantly improve the schools.

The difficulty of finding sweeping solutions came sharply into focus early this year when Schools Chancellor Harold Levy tried to privatize five SURR schools under the auspices of the for-profit Edison Schools, Inc. Like most low performing schools, these schools had spent years on the list undergoing a long sequence of "corrective action," planning and reviews.

Acting under pressure from Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Levy declared Edison could do a better job. But for his plan to take effect under state rules, parents of at least 50 percent of the students at a given school had to approve the idea. After a heated campaign, parents at all five schools rejected Edison. Today, the schools remain on the SURR list and two of them, IS 320 and IS 111, are slated to close.

VOUCHERS

Today, some states and the federal government are coming up with other solutions.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for example, has called for giving vouchers to students in that state's failing schools that they could use to pay tuition at private schools. The plan resembles existing programs that cover tuition in private programs for students with disabilities who cannot receive an appropriate education in public school. A suit has been filed against the Florida plan.

In 1994 a New York State task force recommended a similar plan to help students who have been forced to attend failing schools. But vouchers have been a volatile issue throughout the country, particularly in New York. Advocates say that giving vouchers to students in bad schools would rescue students from educational neglect and provide public school systems with a clear financial incentive to improve failing schools. Opponents believe vouchers will only make a bad situation worse, taking money and talented students our of the public schools.

Earlier this year, Congress rejected giving private school vouchers to students, but other methods to deal with failing schools, including providing students with a choice of public schools and issuing vouchers for private tutoring, could be included in legislation later this year.

STANDARDIZED STANDARDS

Though the Senate and House proposals differ, bills in both houses give schools between 10 and 12 years to meet state-designated goals for all students. Progress would be assessed yearly. If schools fail to meet the targets for any student after the agreed upon time period, they would be closed.

Both bills also require schools to report on students' performance targets and call for results to be broken out by income, race and ethnicity. Advocates for poor and minority students have called for this kind of reporting on the grounds that lumping all results together can disguise discrepancies in performance and inequities in the allocation of resources. For example, 73 percent of white state public school fourth graders meet the standards in math and reading, while only 39 percent of black and Hispanic students do.

As school systems rush to meet the new reporting and performance targets, some educators fear that states may set meaningless standards, thus ensuring that all schools can meet them. As one New York State Education Department official said, the overwhelming temptation will be to "game the system and drop the standards."

Another concern is that annual high-stakes tests could drive minority students in failing schools (and elsewhere) to repeat grades and eventually drop out. New York City has already seen a rise in its dropout rate, New York having one of the worst high-school graduation rates among major cities in the country, according to a recent report. Only 54 percent of city public school students graduated on time. Many attribute the high dropout rate to the state's new emphasis on tests for promotion and graduation.

POWER TO THE PRINCIPALS

These approaches all address the problem after it has occurred. It would clearly be better to prevent students and entire schools from falling below standards in the first place. To accomplish this, according to a range of studies, superintendents and principals must be alert to the needs of at risk students, so classes should be smaller in kindergarten through third grade. Schools should use proven instructional programs such as Reading Recovery to aid students who need extra help.

Because principals can lose their jobs if their schools consistently fail, studies suggest they should have greater discretion in hiring and firing teachers. Superintendents, too, should have greater discretion to move teachers in and out of schools, much as other government agencies can transfer staff.

As the only people in the system who can make the needed changes, principals need higher salaries, along with the ability to assemble a similarly well-compensated team. And they must be evaluated on how well their students learn, not on whether the youngsters simply mastered some short-term test-taking strategies.

The solution to the problem of low-performing schools has been summed up in three words by Adelaide Sanford, the vice chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. There must be, she says, "outrage, resources, and action."

Other Resources:

Several thoughtful reports, in addition to those cited in the text, offer solutions to the problem of low-performing schools.

Links:

David C. Bloomfield is an associate professor of educational administration at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He was a member of the New York State Regents Visiting and Advisory Committees on Low Performing Schools.

The Edison Election


"Team excellence," reads the wall mural outside Jackie Robinson Middle School (MS 320) in Crown Heights. "Students and Teachers Working Together." To underscore the message, pictures of the baseball hero decorate the school, perhaps to exhort the Brooklyn adolescents to follow his path of achievement.

But, according to statistics, excellence remains a distant ideal at Jackie Robinson. The school has been on the state's Schools Under Registration Review list of low performing schools for years, and 96 percent of its students failed to meet the state standards for math last year. Only 18 percent met the standards for reading, compared to 39 percent citywide.

That record prompted New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy to select profit-making Edison Schools to operate MS 320 and four other troubled public schools.

That plan now stands at the center of a heated battle over privatization of schools and community control. State law requires that a majority of parents at a public school approve transferring that school to a private operator. Voting at these five schools began last week and will continue until March 30. When the ballots are counted, it appears possible that parents at some or all of the five schools will reject Edison's bid.

Why all the fuss?

While the current controversy involves only about 5,000 students, the stakes are high. Edison, which is the country's largest "education management organization" but still not profitable, is anxious for a toehold in New York and for a splashy success that could lead to its being given control of dozens of schools in New York and throughout the country.

A yes vote by parents would give privatization advocates a chance to put their favorite remedy to work in a high profile setting. But opponents, including some teachers and community groups, need a no vote to try to stamp out what they see as a dangerous trend before it spreads further. To heighten interest, the vote comes as President Bush is calling for the federal government to cut off aid to persistently failing schools -- schools similar to the five that Levy wants to turn over to Edison.

Going Private

In the last several years, there has been an increasing call for alternatives to public schools for parents who can't afford private schools. Charter schools and school vouchers have emerged as ways to provide school choice on a budget (see Charters and Vouchers).

Charters and Vouchers

If you have money, you probably have lots of educational options for your child. Some people see vouchers and charter schools as ways to extend those choices to middle and even low-income youngsters.

Taxpayer-funded "vouchers" would provide parents with a set sum usually less than $3,000 to spend on a public, private or parochial school. Critics assail vouchers for draining money from public schools, and the courts have been leery of spending public money for religious schools in possible violation of the First Amendment. Then too, most private schools cost far more than $3,000 a year, making vouchers of limited use to many families.

As a result, vouchers may well have run out of steam. Voters in California and in Michigan rejected ballot initiatives calling for vouchers in November. While President Bush has supported vouchers, he has avoided using the word. His education package called for something remarkably like a $1,500 voucher, but many observers predict it will be dropped from any final bill.

Now Bush has proposed allowing parents to deduct up to $5,000 of their yearly income for private school. Whatever the ideas pros and cons, it seems aimed at middle class and upper class parents who tend to be pretty satisfied with their public schools.

Meanwhile, charter schools have become a one size fits all reform, with some 500,000 students attending 2,000 charter schools across the country, according to the Center for Education Reform. They are hailed by conservative, free-market advocates in Arizona and by inner city parents seeking more community control and an alternative to often troubled public schools.

On the other side, teachers unions tends to reject them, no doubt because charters dont have to honor collective bargaining agreements or hire licensed teachers. In Arizona, teachers do not even have to be college graduates.

The arguments in the favor of charter schools echo many of those heard in other privatization debates: A private operator, freed from the constraints of bureaucracy and regulation, can provide better services more economically than government agencies. Charter schools receive a license, or charter, from the state or local government to open a new school or take over an existing one. The operators are exempt from school board regulations and collective bargaining agreements. The schools receive a per pupil allocation equal to or somewhat less than the district spends per student, so the bottom line for the school district is that spending remains the same. The verdict, though, is out on whether the companies manage to provide a better education. "Policy makers looking for proof that [charter] schools can best the public school system at improving academic performance would find a patchwork of conflicting evidence," writes Education Week. For example, a 1998 study by Western Michigan University found charter-school students scored lower on tests than their public-school counterparts. But in 2000, the Colorado Department of Education reported that children in charter schools do better on state tests than the average Colorado pupil.

Given Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's penchant for privatization and dismay over the performance of many New York City public schools, it was hardly surprising that he would advocate school choice. Perhaps in response to the mayor's interest, last summer Levy solicited bids from private companies to take over as many as 51 of the city's lowest performing schools. Fourteen companies responded, with Edison submitting plans to operate 12 elementary schools in September 2001 and as many as 45 schools over the next three years.

Levy scaled back the proposal, choosing Edison, but deciding to privatize only five schools: MS 320, Middle School 246 in Flatbush, Intermediate School 111 in Bushwick, Community School 66 in Crotona Park and Public School 161 in Harlem. According to at least one estimate, barely 20 percent of students at these schools read at grade level. Levy also switched the emphasis from elementary schools to middle schools, where problems can be more intractable.

Looking at the school's in question, it would be easy to conclude that any change would be for the better and that Edison would easily win the elections. But that prediction would have ignored power struggles and high passions that such issues can incite in New York.

The community group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and a coalition calling itself People's Coalition to Take Back Our Schools launched a full attack on the plan, charging that parents were shut out of the process. Many of its members question the role of any private corporation in public education.

A key issue is who should control public schools. Noting that parents have been told the schools will be closed if they reject Edison, parent Cecilia McQueen said, "That's not a choice. It's an ultimatum. It's like you don't pay the ticket, you go to jail."

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform which advocates charter schools wrote that the fight is "about who has power over education and who makes progress. Schools have been allowed for too long to act like monarchies whose subjects exist for their convenience."

As parents mulled their choice, both sides sought to influence the vote. Staff members at four schools reportedly leaked parents' phone numbers to Edison opponents who used them to mount a phone campaign featuring a taped message by former Mayor David Dinkins. Edison ran radio advertisements and handed out paraphernalia emblazoned with the company name.

The Mayor and the Chancellor The fight veered away from the children and instead centered on the ups and downs of powerful adults -- including Giuliani, Levy and Edison board chair Benno Schmidt. Joyce Purnick argued in the New York Times, "The standing of the mayor in minority communities is so shaky that he cannot champion his own cause. He is Edison's biggest problem, say elected officials."

That probably won't do the mayor much long-term damage. The brawl's effect on Levy is another matter. At a recent City Council hearing, there was general consensus that "the Board of Education and [Levy] could not have screwed this up more if they'd tried," Elisabeth Franck wrote in the New York Observer . What people seem to differ over is whether Levy's handling of the matter reflects his own ambivalence about turning public schools over to private operators or incompetence, particularly what Purnick termed "his tendency to act without much consultation."

Further complicating the picture -- and inflaming Edison's critics -- are the company's ties to the Giuliani administration and its stated need to make money in disadvantaged communities.

Meanwhile, the other side includes people worried about challenges to the educational status quo, teachers and staff concerned about keeping their jobs, and groups that see this controversy as a chance to score points for themselves and against Giuliani.

The Real Issue

In a better world, the fight would have revolved around whether Edison could provide the 5,000 youngsters in the schools with a better education than they would otherwise get. Here there seems to be enough conflicting evidence for well meaning people to disagree.

While the United Federation of Teachers and some parents say the schools are improving, few would say they're good. "The status quo isn't working, and it hasn't worked for years," says ACORN leader organizer Nathan Smith.

In light of that, why not Edison? "We don't have the political will to put in the money that would provide answers," says John F. Jennings, -director of the Center on Education Policy. Given that, he says, Edison offers "a pretty decent plan."

But Ellen Raider of the Coalition to Take Back Our Schools says New York can do better. "We have excellent schools in our city," she says. "We can replicate those excellent schools."

Edison's Plan

Edison has vowed to make a one-time investment of $2,500 per student in the schools, providing a home computer for every third grader, laptops for teachers and cable television in classrooms, as well as "tractor-trailers" full of books and materials.

"These schools are going to be five of the most watched schools in American," Edison founder Christopher Whittle has said. "Failure is not an option here....Our necks, corporately, personally and otherwise, are on the line."

In the classroom, teachers would use a fairly standard curriculum called Success for All and require a considerable degree of regimentation including uniforms. The school day would run an hour or two longer than the conventional school day.

Mary Procter of the Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. says this approach serves her inner city students well. Edison, she says, operates "a bread and butter school," similar to a good parochial school and has brought test scores up to almost average from woefully below.

A parent who Edison took on a visit to its Washington school told the Daily News, "What I saw was a public school that looked like a private school. Kids behaved. Teachers were enthusiastic." But one parent at a recent ACORN meeting griped that Edison schools are too much "like military academies."

In 1999, Edison announced that its students saw their scores on national tests increase by 5 percent a year. But the numbers are murky about Edison in particular and charter schools in general. A recent Western Michigan University study funded by the National Education Association, a teachers organization, found students at Edison schools performed at levels similar to other nearby schools and do not make the kinds of gains of which Edison has boasted.

Some critics fault education management companies for offering a "cookie cutter" approach that does not allow teachers to adjust to individual students' needs. Again, though, others counter that such a standardized curriculum is precisely what's needed. In fact, the United Federation of Teachers says the public schools and Edison use many of the same methods.

While the New York City school board is trying to get Edison in, some members of the San Francisco school board are trying to revoke the company's charter for an elementary school there. These board members cite the high turnover of teachers since Edison took over a school coincidentally named Edison. And they allege the company has removed troubled or learning disabled students from the school.

Edison supporters, however, counter that test scores at the San Francisco elementary school have risen and that the school is more orderly and has greater resources than when the New York company took it over.

Profit Motive

"The kind of questions we need to ask the company," San Francisco school board president and Edison critic Jill Wynns Wynns told a recent gathering at ACORN headquarters in Brooklyn, "relate to their claims that they can take the same population, do better and make money."

Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University, is chairman of Edison's board, and former Rep. Floyd Flake, the prominent Queens minister, is president of its charter schools division. Its founder Chris Whittle ran Esquire magazine and started Channel 1. Yet the operation of 113 schools and the marquee names have not translated into profits.

According to the New York Times, "for every dollar [Edison] has taken from school districts and charter schools, it has spent $1.36, racking up losses of $197 million since . . . 1992."

The economics of the private operators is dicey at best. On an average payment of $6,500 a student, a company must operate a school and pay staff, as well as returning money to shareholders.

Non-profits, of course, don't have to pay their investors. The Robert Treat Academy in Newark, N.J. gets $7,000 a child, while the Newark schools get $10,000 to $11,000. But Sharon Brennan, the school's board secretary, says her charter school "isn't wanting for anything." Without unionized teachers and a big overhead, she says, "the money goes into the classroom." And Kenneth Campbell, vice president of business development of one private education company, Advantage, says, "We think you can be financially and academically successful at the same time."

Companies like his and Edison claim they can do this by cutting bureaucratic overhead; avoiding collective bargaining agreements that not only dictate salaries but set rules as to what tasks teachers can and cannot do; and purchasing supplies and services more efficiently. Edison's "success depends largely on size," wrote Edward Wyatt in the New York Times, "generating economies of scale in buying textbooks, computers and the like to help lower costs and generate profits."

And so New York, the country's biggest school system, is key. Edison's stock reflects this. Between December, when the deal with the city was announced, and February, the company stock rose from $26.56 a share to $36.75. But then, as the deal ran into difficulties, the stock fell to $21 in early March.

Edison founder Whittle originally wanted to run private schools but was persuaded during Edison's early days that public school takeovers could be more profitable. And if the student body can be altered (as it is alleged some charters have done) so that the students are a bit easier to educate, so much the better for the bottom line.

Even so, "it's very hard for these private companies to come in and make money," Jennings says.

The John Reisenbach School in Harlem is in its second year of offering youngsters a nine and a half hour school day that includes classes in the morning and various projects in the afternoon. Spokesman Ted Faraone says the John Reisenbach Foundation, which funds the school, questions whether for-profit education can work. "You have potentially unlimited costs and capped revenues,' he says. "There is some question as to the viability of for-profit education."

Wall Street's Carl Icahn recently received a charter for a South Bronx school that will open in the fall. Although Icahn says his school, which he hopes to be the first of several, will cuts costs by trimming bureaucracy, he said, "it's not going to be profit-making. It's about making changes and making schools work."

Critics worry that Edison might cut corners to boost profits, scrimping on materials and technological innovations. A collapse of the company, of course, would mean that the city would have to reassert control over the schools or find another operator, something that would almost certainly be disruptive.

Parent Power

Regardless of the merits of Edisons proposal and despite its enormous resources, the company finds itself in a tight situation in New York. Its position must be approved by 51 percent of all parents in a school -- not just voting parents before it can assume control. Thats a tall order when less than 5 percent of parents vote in the school board elections and, according to one parent, only 30 or 40 parents out of several hundred showed up for a recent meeting at the Crotona Park school on the Edison proposal.

It would be comforting to think that the Edison controversy, however it turns out, will heighten public resolve to do something about troubled schools. Given the history of public education, though, the media and public attention is likely to move elsewhere once the hot controversy ends and the big names go elsewhere. When that day comes, the students at Jackie Robinson will again be largely ignored as they strive for excellence.

The Edison Schools Controversy


In the latest development in the saga of who will control five of the city's worst schools, Chancellor Harold O. Levy has given parents two extra weeks to weigh information and make up their minds about whether these schools should continue under the auspices of the Board of Education or be turned over to Edison Schools, the country's largest commercial school management company. For Edison to take over, a majority of parents in each school must vote to convert to charter status.

The debate about new management for the schools became especially heated in January, when parents in two of the five schools and other Edison opponents held meetings to protest the plan, which Chancellor Levy and which most of the members of the Board of Education support. Concerns about the plan range from opposition to putting public schools in private hands to fears about teachers' job security to worries about Edison's track record.

Here's how things got to this point. Toward the end of the last school year, the then newly-installed chancellor announced that he intended to accept proposals from for-profit school management companies who thought they could successfully turn around some of the city's failing schools. Levy said he was not committing to anything; he just wanted to see what they had to offer. Fourteen such companies submitted proposals in August 2000.

In December, the Board of Education announced that it would give Edison Schools alone the opportunity to try its hand at running some of the city's worst schools. Levy touted the additional resources that Edison would bring into the schools, up to $2 million per school for new programs in reading and math and training for teachers.

The five schools Edison would run are PS 161 in Manhattan, PS 88 in the Bronx, IS 246, IS 320 and IS 111 in Brooklyn, serving about 5,000 students all together. All of them are SURR schools (schools under registration review), which means they are on the state's list of the worst of the worst schools in the state. IS 320 and IS 111 were scheduled to be closed for failing to improve despite the extra attention and resources they received as a result of becoming SURR schools. IS 111 has been on the SURR list since 1989.

Edison Schools, which runs 113 schools in 45 cities around the country, works to improve student achievement through longer school days, student uniforms, and more computers in the classrooms, but its record for success is not consistent. And most of its evidence of student improvement comes from its own assessments.

Many parents initially seemed ready to give something new a try. But, as time dragged on and information about Edison and the conversion process remained scarce, parental doubts started to surface. Groups that opposed Edison, either in principle or in practice, began to organize and voice their concerns. Now angry accusations of foul play and defensive responses are drowning out the important conversation about what is best for students.

Parents are to begin voting yes or no to Edison during the second week of March.

Jessica Sounds Off:

It is hard to believe that parents and others concerned about children stuck in these abysmal schools are fighting to maintain the status quo there. These schools have claimed to be "turning around" for years, with no convincing evidence of improvement. In the meantime, thousands of children have come and gone without even a minimally adequate education. That parents in these long-failing schools have not embraced a change only attests to flaws in the Board of Education's planning and implementation of the conversion.

The Board. has been unable to improve these schools; Edison's track record is not strong enough to offer any guarantees. If Edison and the chancellor want committed families in the new schools, they should give parents a real choice and make enrollment there voluntary.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

School Boards


 

If you're seeking confusing ballots, narrow margins of victory, and hand-counted votes,look no further than the contests for New York City's 32 community school boards. It takes weeks to get the results, and many befuddled voters don't understand how to mark their ballots.

There's at least one big difference, though, between the races for school board in New York City and the current furor in Florida: While the stakes in Florida are undeniably high, many critics say it really doesn't matter who wins New York's school boards races. The boards are virtually powerless and, whatever the lofty goals that surrounded their founding three decades ago, critics charge that they are today nothing more than an unnecessary bureaucracy, and an occasional source of corruption.

That argument got an added boost earlier this month when Celestine Miller, a former superintendent of District 29 in Queens, and five others were charged in a 123-count indictment alleging that they took bribes totaling more than $900,000 to rig bids for $6 million in computer equipment for 19 schools. It's a long way, critics say, from the rallying cries of "community empowerment" and "community control" with which the school boards began.

Supporters see it differently. School boards have been scapegoats, they say, for the failures in the educational system. Whatever their flaws, they are in some ways a more open and democratic institution than many others in New York.

COMMUNITY CONTROL

Community school boards began with the grandest of intentions, and amid the deepest of controversies. The 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Ed, combined with a 1966 federal report that concluded that the system, not individual students, was to blame for their educational failure, led to demands by parents and local communities to have more direct control of their schools.

In 1967, the Ford Foundation financed "demonstration" school districts as an experiment in what was called decentralization in three areas of the city, one of which was in a part of Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

A large fracas began when the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board, comprised of nine parents and three community leaders, announced its intention to transfer 19 school employees, including 13 teachers, out of the district for allegedly sabotaging efforts at decentralization. Supporters of the employees charged the ousters were ethnically based. Amid charges of racism and anti-Semitism, the United Federation of Teachers went on strike over the issue, and its president Albert Shanker. went to jail. Eventually the teachers were reinstated, though all transferred to other districts. The State Education Department took over as the interim authority of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district.

Though conflict had marred the experiment, most believed that decentralization was a worthwhile principle, and so in February of 1969, the state legislature passed a decentralization law creating the 32 school districts in New York. Specifically, the new law empowered school boards to hire the district superintendent, as well as school administrators such as principals and assistant principals.

LOW TURNOUT, LONG WAIT VS. INCLUSIVE, INNOVATIVE

Back in the 1960s, a popular button read, "Suppose they gave an election and nobody came." With turnouts hovering nowadays at around five percent, the community school board elections come close. Elections for school board members are not even held on Election Day. They are held in May, every three years; the next one will be in 2002.

But that is not the only way they are different from standard elections. Registered voters can participate in school board elections, but so can "parent voters." Parent voters do not have to be registered. They do not even have to be United States citizens. The only requirement is that they be at least 18 years old and the parent or guardian of a child in a public school. People may vote in either the district in which they live or the district where their child attends school, but not both.

The school board elections employ a proportional voting system. When they go to the polling place, the voters rank those running for nine at-large seats in order of their preference on paper ballots, marking a 1 by their first choice, a 2 by their second and so on up to nine candidates.

According to New York State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Education Committee, the proportional voting system was designed "to prevent a majority, white or black or whatever, from controlling each and every seat on a school board."

Robert Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, says the system gives each individual voter a greater role in electing at least one board member.

The result are community boards made up of people that better reflect the diversity of New York. And, even though many complain about lack of voter involvement with school boards today, there is no shortage of candidates. A total of 25 people applied this fall to fill a single opening on School Board 8 in the Bronx.

Critics of the proportional voting system in New York City school board elections, argue that it can be complicated and confusing.

"The problem is that this system is used to elect only one group of candidates every three years," says Rodney Saunders, a member and former president of School Board 11 in the northeast Bronx. "The voting public doesn't fully understand it. and too many people at the Board of Elections don't understand it, so it takes much too long, and those counting the ballots are hard-pressed to get it right."

Further frustrating voters is the weeks it takes to get the results. Saunders says officials don't even start to count the votes until two weeks after the election and then tabulate them by hand.

CLIPPING THEIR WINGS

In the last election, which was held last year, voters may have stayed away from polls because the community boards have so little power. Under the prodding of then-Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the New York State Legislature in 1996 redefined the responsibilities of local school boards, taking away much of their power, including the authority to name a the district superintendent.

Today, school boards no longer manage day-to-day affairs within the district or hire or promote school district employees, including principals. Instead, the local school boards set educational policy, mostly just by helping to select a superintendent for the school district. Even here they don't have the final say; the chancellor does.

The 1996 law removed much of the rationale for the boards' existence, according to Public Advocate Mark Green, who declared in a speech delivered in April that school boards should be eliminated. "The local school boards were a great idea -- in theory -- but rarely worked in practice," Green stated. "Some became patronage mills, doling out jobs and contracts to friends. Most, now stripped of their powers, are today excess weight in a bureaucracy that needs to be simplified and flattened. It's time for them to go."

DEFENDING THE BOARDS

Rodney Saunders, a strong proponent of the local boards, says he ran for school board, an unpaid position, in 1996 because, after his daughter started kindergarten, he felt he had a vested interest in working to improve the school system. He says some people run for school board after serving as a leader of a school parents' association, while others see it as a first step in entering the political arena. About 30 percent of school board members have children in the school system.

Saunders says, "School board members, as elected officials, can use the power of the parents and the press to call attention to conditions that exist within a specific school or the entire district, such as the need for additional seats or buildings because of severe overcrowding."

He believes that corruption among board members is rare, but that the community boards have been convenient scapegoats. "The press and Board of Education were always blaming school boards for failures," he complains. Now that the community boards have less power, and "we can't be blamed, it's 'the parents' fault' or the 'students' fault.'"

Even Assemblyman Steve Sanders, who was a driving force behind passage of the 1996 school reform legislation, stops short of advocating the complete elimination of school boards.

"We should not have a school system without a place in the structure for parental involvement in decision making," Sanders says. "I'm more comfortable with the way school boards are today."

2002

Whether one is for or against community school boards, doing away with them would not be a simple task. "Just as the 1969 decentralization was by way of enactment of the state legislature, so were the huge changes of 1996 and so would any hypothetical change eliminating school boards," Sanders says. He adds that any change in school governance relating to the voting public would have to be approved, as always, by the United States Justice Department, since three of New York City's boroughs fall under the protection of the Voting Rights Act.

So, once again, a handful of dedicated souls are sure to make their way to local polling places in May 2002 to mark paper ballots for nine people seeking an office with little power and no compensation. And then they will all wait weeks to see who won.

Resources

 

School Funding


This week, Jesse Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Oberlin College, who is starting her second year as a math teacher at Junior High School 145 in the Bronx, was thinking about her friend, Amy Jones, who taught by her side last year. Jones is starting a new year as a teacher in Great Neck, Long Island.

The contrasts between what the two teachers' schools will offer students this year could not be sharper. Robinson teaches several classes a day, each with 30 sixth graders. Jones has 17 students, period. JHS 145 offers Robinson and her students a library that is tidy but almost empty of books. At the Great Neck school, Jones has access to a rich, varied, collection, including a whole shelf devoted to the latest education research.

Jones has already met with her new principal and a school reading specialist to talk about the strength and weaknesses of each of the 17 children in her room, something Robinson has never done at JHS145.

It's not that Jones didn't love teaching at JHS 145. She did. She just couldn't pass up the opportunity to teach in a district that spends more than twice as much on each child as New York City does - or to earn an extra $15,000. Jones has gone from earning $35,000 in New York to $50,000 in the suburbs.

Robinson shook her head. "The students here need what the suburban students have even more than they do," she said. "And they get so much less."

Few things are as constant in education as the gap in spending between New York City and other districts in New York State. Two years ago, the last year for which there is data, the city spent about $8,100 per child. Neighboring suburban districts in Westchester and Long Island spent on average close to $13,000, and districts around the state spent over $10,000. Great Neck spent $18,915. Year in and year out New York State assemblymen, senators, and the governor vow to put an end to the disparities. Year after year it survives.

A lawsuit brought by the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, a coalition of reformers, seeking to overturn the state's school finance system is drawing to a close. After seven years of motions, challenges and appeals, a trial in State Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the system ended in July and a ruling by Judge Leland DeGrasse is expected within the next eight weeks.

This is just one of some 70 lawsuits across the nation addressing the huge disparities separating city schools from those in the suburbs.

THE CONTEXT: SCHOOLS OPEN UNDER SIEGE, AGAIN

Despite record increases in both state and city education spending, as city schools open this week tens of thousands of students are returning to buildings that are severely overcrowded and under-supplied. Sixteen thousand students are reporting to 31 high schools that have no science labs.

Thousands of children are going back to buildings surrounded by scaffolding, erected as stopgap measures until repairs to crumbling facades can be made. Five thousand Queens high school students will be lucky if they can get into an art room because their seven high schools have one art room a piece. In District 13, none of the existing art rooms has running water.

In elementary schools throughout the city thousands of children, like the kids at PS 71 in Queens, will go a year without a single gym class or, like the children at PS 8 in upper Manhattan, they1ll spend the entire year indoors because their schools don1t have playgrounds.

If this year is like last, only 40 percent of the students citywide will pass the city's reading exam - given in grades 3,5,6, and 7 - and only 33 percent will pass the math test. And that includes kids in the best districts. In Jesse Robinson's school, 14 percent of students passed the math exam and 29 percent passed reading.

As if the City's schools weren1t beleaguered enough, a new study, released last week by a Harvard University researcher, reports that African-American students in New York City who took advantage of privately funded vouchers scored significantly better than their peers after two years in private schools. White and Hispanic students did not show any gains.

It is statistics like these that keep vouchers and privatization alive in local races and in this year's presidential campaign. If elected, Republican nominee George W. Bush will give children vouchers if the schools they attended fail to meet state standards for three years in a row.

Some economists, notably Erik A. Hanushek of the Hoover Institution argue that increasing school funding does little to improve student achievement, but inner-city public school administrators, teachers, parents and an army of researchers across the country say the evidence shows that financing makes a huge difference.

THE NATIONAL SCENE

Since 1971, there have been 70 lawsuits in 41 states against state finance systems that allow suburban districts to flourish while inner-city schools starve for funds.

Plaintiffs in these cases take advantage of a historical fact that sets education apart from all other public services: state constitutions mention education as a state responsibility. Courts have repeatedly interpreted this to mean that states must fund schools equitably.

Litigation has resulted in a wide range of reforms, according to the Consortium For Policy Research In Education The most controversial law may be the one enacted in Vermont two years ago, where wealthy residents were made to cut back on spending in their districts and high poverty schools were supplied with much more.

Most states, however, find it difficult to alter spending radically, even after they've been ordered to by courts. One reason is that states do not control all school spending. Almost every school district in the country is an independent revenue-generating entity with the power to raise money for schools by taxing local property. States around the nation contribute only about half of what it costs to run schools. Though states use their education budgets to counterbalance disparities among districts - giving smaller shares of the state1s overall school budget to wealthy districts - districts have the power to supplement state aid with their own revenues.

Another reason that states have trouble making school funding equitable is, in a word, politics. Even though states contribute only half of schools' budgets, education is expensive. State education packages are almost always the largest item in a state's budget. As a result they come in for a lot of political attention. In New York State, education spending is 45 percent of the overall budget, and every state legislator has a stake in how the money is spent.

"It's not like energy where there may or may not be a plant in the legislator1s district. Every senator and assemblyman has a school," said State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, chair of New York Assembly's education committee.

HOW NEW YORK STATE FINANCES ITS SCHOOLS

The New York City pubic school population includes 60 percent of the state's neediest children, and the city has the highest costs of any of the state's school districts. Yet New York City gets less state aid per capita than the average per capita aid in the rest of the state.

Over the years, special commissions and a parade of state officials deplore the fact that the state's finance system under-funds New York City. Nevertheless, each year the system is still standing at the end of the legislative season.

New York allocates state aid - at least when it comes to New York City - on the basis of student enrollment. The City enrolls 1.1 million students, 37.2 percent of the state's total, and gets 35.65 percent of the state's aid.

On paper, the state vigorously denies that money is divvied up on the basis of the number of students enrolled in each district. Theoretically, each district's share is calculated using a series of formulas that give special weight to factors like student socio-economic status and district wealth.

In reality though, according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and state education officials who testified earlier this year in the lawsuit against the state, New York State distributes aid on the basis of a longstanding political deal to hold New York City funding to 37 percent of the state's annual school budget.

"The political decisions are made first and the formulas are tacked on later," said Dr. Thomas Sobol, New York State Commissioner of Education from 1987 to 1995. "It's a reflection of stability in the balance of power [in Albany]."

Steven Sanders, the assemblyman who heads the education committee, said using enrollment to calculate aid actually boosts the city's share of state funding. "When I first became chair, New York City's overall share of state education dollars was somewhere around 33 percent or 34 percent. Enrollment is not a good definition of equity but at the very least, we thought, New York City ought to be receiving at least as much as its student enrollment."

Sanders said that after difficult negotiations, the Republican leadership in Albany has agreed to give New York City roughly a 39 percent share of each year's increase in state spending, as a way of bringing per capita spending in the city up to the state average.

But the Campaign for Fiscal Equity is not satisfied - either with the Albany deal or with the system of formulas the legislature ignores. It is calling on Judge DeGrasse to toss out the state's system entirely and to replace it with one that distributes aid on the basis of what it actually costs to educate students in a given district.

Under the system envisioned by the Campaign, the state would figure out what educational essentials were necessary for different types of students to meet the state's new learning standards. What would high poverty kids need to succeed? What about immigrant children? What about middle-income kids? Once that was determined, budget negotiators would distribute money on the basis of student need. The New York State Board of Regents endorses a similar plan in its most recent report.

There's only one problem. "Nobody knows how much it costs to educate these kids," said John Augenblick, a Denver-based expert on school finance. "What you have is 50 different ways of doing it, none of which is scientific."

Jesse Robinson looked over at the four computers in her room, which didn't work last year, and sighed. A brand-new first year teacher stuck his head In her room and introduced himself. Robinson gave him a huge smile and welcomed him with hearty and enthusiastic encouragement. She loves her job and her school, she said. But she can't tell yet whether she'll stay. The demands placed on her by low funding might just be too great.

 



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