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Keep An Eye on the Money for Schools

by Leonie Haimson, Jan 24, 2005
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While awaiting the judge's order in the school funding case, three views on what's next:

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• How to Spend the Money for the Schools
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• Parents, Educators and Advocates Must Have Their Say
by Leonie Haimson

Last fall, despite an increase in $300 million in state aid for education and a substantial hike in the city's education budget, public schools all over the city saw their budgets drastically cut. Although some of these cuts were eventually restored, the Bloomberg administration never explained why it made the cuts in the first place. With such a history, it should not be surprising that many people are concerned how the city might spend any money it gets from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has argued that people can be assured that the money will be well spent because he is the mayor. The city's lawyers have said that requiring Bloomberg to do anything specific with this money would take away from that mayoral control.

Our concerns were further stirred by the plan that city officials have submitted on how it will use the Campaign for Fiscal Equity dollars. (See the administration's full plan in pdf format or a summary.)

The plan does not include an assessment of what the system needs, there are few measurable goals and objectives, and it lacks a list of annual benchmarks for improvement. It allocates only two percent of the settlement dollars to reducing class size, one of the core issues in the case, while spending more than $1 billion to further enlarge the bureaucracy, hiring thousands of additional administrators and "specialists" to be housed outside school buildings in leased office space. The city's lawyers have said the plan was arrived at after public participation -- a claim that would probably surprise parents and other community members, most of whom do not even know that it exists.

But the state's highest court found that our children are being denied their constitutional right to a sound, basic education. A process must be established to ensure that the additional funds the city receives be spent on programs to provide students with the education they need and deserve.

Since none of the attorneys in the case has proposed how to do this, a group of parents and advocates put together a proposal for accountability and submitted it to the court on January 10. (See the text of the letter and a list of signers and our complete accountability plan)

Our proposal would create a system of checks and balances to ensure that the city spend any additional funds efficiently and appropriately.

First, there need to be concrete benchmarks for improvement. In four years, the schools should, at minimum, reach adequacy in the areas where the court found New York City schools to be constitutionally deficient: class size, teacher quality, and "instrumentalities of learning" -- this last category includes school labs, libraries, textbooks and so on. In these areas, city schools would, at minimum, have to attain the levels that exist in the rest of the state.

The court should also require that the city's spending plan for the funds go through a review process that includes the public. Our proposal lays out a precise process that would involve meetings at individual schools, public hearings, recommendations by the public advocate and approval by the New York State Education Department.

Our proposal also calls for yearly audits by the state comptroller's office to determine whether the money is being spent in a way that meets the goals in the plan. This will help gain the confidence of parents in New York City but also reassure taxpayers throughout the state who fear that their money is going to go into a black hole.

Our proposal for accountability has attracted widespread support, reflecting the importance the public gives to the issues of accountability and public review. We want to ensure that billions of dollars are spent not on enlarging the bureaucracy at Tweed or on unproven educational fads, but to improve classroom conditions.

Leonie Haimson heads Class Size Matters.


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