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New York Post

 

Klein's Gamble

October 16, 2007

By Nicole Gelinas

Risky School-Funds Formula

SCHOOLS Chancellor Joel Klein has embraced a new ed-reform idea: "fair student funding," a formula for dividing up funds for the million-plus kids in the city's public schools. It's meant to spend more money on the worst-performing pupils. Klein says this will make a huge difference - but the plan could also wind up eroding public support for the schools.

The Department of Ed is shifting to the new approach to address a long-standing disparity. The school system spends an average of nearly $5,000 per student on "classroom instruction" (a figure that excludes spending on buildings, school buses, school meals and staff health benefits), but the actual amounts vary widely. Ana Champeny for the city's Independent Budget Office lays it out in two new reports: Some schools spend nearly $8,600 in instruction resources per student; at others, it's only $2,500.

The funding disparity isn't the result of racism or class warfare. The 20 percent of high schools that spend the most money have more (as a percentage) black and Hispanic students, and more students in poverty, than the 20 percent that spend the least.

It's messier at the elementary- and middle-school level: There, the best-funded schools have more white kids and fewer Hispanics than the worst-funded schools, but also more black students. But, overall, the difference is largely due to class size and school size.

Klein could have tackled the problem by assigning each student a fixed amount of money for instructional spending, with more money for special-ed students and students in tough grades like the middle-school years. Instead, he's chosen to assign each student a "need-based weight" and to fund that student - really, that student's school - accordingly.

As the IBO report details, each school starts out with "foundation money" of $200,000; each student then gets a "base weight" allotment of roughly $4,000 (with slightly more money for middle- and high-school kids).

Then it gets complicated: Each student scoring "well below standards" and entering fourth or fifth grade, or a high-school grade, gets an extra $1,500; students "below standards" get $950. (Middle-schoolers in those groups get a few hundred bucks more.)

And each student who enters school in poverty before the fourth grade gets an extra $900. (These kids haven't yet taken standardized tests, so the system uses poverty as a proxy for low achievement, since more than 90 percent of low-achieving students are poor).

By contrast, a student at a top school like Stuyvesant High School gets $950 above his "base weight," the same as a "below-standards" fourth-grader.

These changes will be phased in slowly, thanks in part to union opposition. But if New York's next mayor keeps the program in place - Democratic officials in smaller cities have embraced similar ideas - it will shift funding significantly within the city's schools.

The big problem is, the plan defines the public-school system as a wealth-transfer program - one that lavishes far more resources on the poor than on the middle class. And turning a "universal" program into one for the poor is a great way to erode public support for it. That's why, for example, it was much easier to reform welfare than it's been to reform Social Security.

And though 70 percent of public-school students are poor, the system depends on middle-class support. Many middle-class families in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island send their kids to public schools, accounting for a good part of the 30 percent of students who aren't poor. Their support has allowed Mayor Bloomberg to boost education spending. But how will a middle-class Queens mother feel about paying ever-higher taxes when she knows her child won't see much of the benefit?

It won't be just a middle-class worry, either. Imagine you're the working-poor parent of a middle-school student who's gotten "his" extra poverty money but seen little improvement. It might dawn on you to demand that the politicians put "your" child's money to use somewhere else - maybe as a tuition payment at a parochial school.

That would make "fair student funding" an even more radical reform than its advocates intend.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/10162007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/kleins_gamble.htm

 

 
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