Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Phony War by Andrew Wolf

The Phony War
May 30, 2008

The specific issue in New York City's public schools that has caused the
most recent brouhaha is how much we spend on teaching our students. In this
dust-up, all parties manage to come out on the wrong side.
Expenditures for education already have risen to more than $20 billion a
year from $12.5 billion six years ago, without any objective indicator that
would suggest that we are on the path to success.
There was a time when the mayor himself would criticize the $12.5 billion
figure, asking not for more money, but questioning why such a huge
expenditure didn't yield satisfactory results. While campaigning to be given
control of the schools back in 2002, Mr. Bloomberg suggested that
business-like management combined with a "back-to-basics" curriculum would
tame the perceived chaos in our schools.
This is the kind of talk that drew many of us, myself included, to support
mayoral control. But once assuming control, Mr. Bloomberg's initial precepts
were abandoned, and the mayor joined in supporting the Campaign for Fiscal
Equity lawsuit, apparently convinced that with just a few billion more, all
would be right.
By that time, the lawsuit had morphed from one that questioned whether the
formula by which state money earmarked for schools was apportioned was fair
to the city to one that asked whether enough money was being spent to
provide a "sound, basic education," a phrase that means something different
to anyone you ask. Considering that the Empire State already boasted the
highest per capita spending in the nation, a new definition of just how much
is enough was sure to emerge.
The case concluded with agreements on future levels of spending, with the
mayor and chancellor willing participants in the process. That was before
the mortgage crisis, $4 gasoline, and the souring of the local economy. Now
the mayor is reaping what he sowed. He played the CFE money game, and is
still finding himself allegedly short of money.
The department of education has come up with a plan that proposes the
deepest cuts to the schools that do the best. These schools
disproportionately serve middle class and politically active segments of the
population, who, the mayor thought, would reliably line up behind him. It
didn't work out that way.
This came to a head on Tuesday when the chancellor appeared before the
Council's education committee, and was flayed for "breaking his word" on
school spending. With a well-orchestrated "Keep the Promises" press campaign
financed by the unions hitting the airwaves, and a membership eager to end
the headlines over their own spending scandals, the committee members
eagerly eviscerated the hapless chancellor.
Mr. Klein has a point in wanting to restore control over his own budget. But
he willingly participated in the process by which that control was
compromised. He is right in wanting to insulate successful schools serving
the middle class from disproportionate pain, but didn't seem so concerned
about these schools when he proposed his "fair school funding" plan that
calls for cuts in many of them far deeper than anything now on the table.
Fair school funding was deferred as part of an agreement with the United
Federation of Teachers last year, and the upcoming budget will be the last
one in which these besieged schools will be "held harmless" from the
Draconian cuts previously proposed. Is the chancellor now willing to back
off, permanently, from the ill-conceived fair school funding plan, or is the
newly found concern for the middle class schools nothing more than a short
term ploy to win political support for a larger agenda?
In Tuesday's hearing everyone offered different figures as to the extent of
the cuts and even the amount of the education budget itself. There is plenty
that can be cut in the city's education budget - too many high priced
administrators at the Tweed Courthouse, a bloated public relations operation
spending more than 10 times as much as the old Board of Education spent on
spin control, too many no-bid contracts, hiring pricey British evaluation
teams to "rate" schools (not to mention their hotel bills), and on and on.
What we need is full budgetary transparency, encourage competitive bidding
on contracts and public debate on the necessity of those contracts, and a
full understanding that merely throwing money at the education system does
not translate into results - the one thing that the experiment in mayoral
control has proven beyond any doubt.

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