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Saving NY's Schools

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Saving NY's Schools

July 14, 2004
Urban PolicyNYC
EducationPre K-12

A COURT-IMPOSED dead line for changing New York state's school funding formula will probably come and go in the next two weeks, without any agreed-upon response from Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders in Albany. At that point, it will be up to state Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse — and, by extension, the appellate courts above him — to decide what needs to be done to ensure a "sound basic education" for all New York City students.

The fallacy at the heart of the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case is the notion that a lack of "resources" is the root cause of failure in New York City's well-funded school system.

Yet, even from the blindfolded perspective of the judiciary, there is a glimmer of hope that something good may come out of this lawsuit.

The quality of teaching, which the Court of Appeals called "the first and most essential input" in education, has been a key issue at every stage of the case. As Chief Judge Judith Kaye put it, there has long been "a mismatch between student need in New York City and the quality of teaching directed to that need."

If the courts take their own analysis seriously, they should be open to a CFE remedy that blows up the biggest obstacle to improving teaching in New York City's worst schools — the managerial straitjacket formed by the teachers' union contract.

The danger of simply dumping more money into schools without eliminating contractual impediments to school improvement is documented in a new report written for the Manhattan Institute by veteran educator Raymond Domanico.

From 1982-83 through 2001-02, Domanico found, K-12 public school spending in New York state tripled on a per-pupil basis — and school aid from Albany to New York City ended up rising even faster than the statewide average. The new money served mainly to finance the hiring of nearly 75,000 new teachers and other professional staff, including roughly 30,000 added "pedagogical employees" in the city alone.

The result of all this spending: stagnation or even decline in key pupil-performance measures in city schools, and only "slight or moderate improvements" in districts elsewhere.

Why didn't the investment yield better results? In particular, why are schools with disadvantaged students still worse off?

The ultimate answer, Domanico says, is a contract that makes it impossible to assign teachers where needed, to base pay on performance or to offer pay incentives for teachers in such specialties as mathematics and the sciences.

This problem is aggravated by the city school system's budget-allocation policies, which effectively encourage the movement of experienced teachers out of schools that need them most. Thus, the average salary in wealthy "low-need" community school districts is up to 24 percent higher than those in poor, "high-need" areas.

CFE's main solution — one DeGrasse clearly favors as well — is smaller class sizes, which would necessitate the hiring of thousands of additional teachers. But Domanico says that approach is virtually guaranteed to fail. In fact, by further diluting a finite pool of teaching talent and creating more openings for experienced teachers to transfer out of bad schools, a blanket class-size reduction mandate would actually make things even worse for poor schools.

"Reform of the teachers' contract is key to improving education in New York City," Domanico says. "What's more, mandating such reform as a part of the final remedy is consistent with the court's own expressed goals."

Domanico's report recommends that not a penny of CFE-related school funding should flow to the city until Mayor Bloomberg and the UFT first agree on contractual changes that will permit more flexible staff assignment and compensation policies, including pay incentives to attract higher quality teachers to the students who need them most.

Of course, the state Legislature would never agree to such an approach. But this is where Albany's gridlock could actually help the situation. Pataki, the main defendant in the CFE case, is still free to call for significant change in the teachers' contract as part of his own submission to the court. His lawyers could persuasively argue the state cannot possibly ensure a better education for all kids unless a better contract is required as a quid pro quo for new aid.

The potential takeover of school-financing policy by the courts is a yet another blow to representative democracy and orderly government in the dysfunctional Empire State. But if Pataki seizes the initiative — and if the courts follow his lead — CFE could yet lead to changes in school management that have eluded generations of political leaders in New York.