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Commentary: Education Funding Battle Far From Over

Saturday, April 03, 2004

This week, Governor Pataki's Commission on Education Reform released its recommendations for offering a sound, basic education to all of New York's schoolchildren. The report is part of the Governor's response to a court ruling that said funding for the New York City public schools is unconstitutionally low.
But WNYC's Brian Lehrer says the battle for funding the schools is far from over.

For lack of a better title, allow me to propose Lehrer's first law of education funding: throwing money at public schools does not improve education except for my kids.

Here's some evidence:

The Governor's Commission report was based largely on a study done for the panel by Standard and Poor's. S&P found that the average spending per pupil in New York State is 11,800 dollars a year. But half the school districts spent more than 15,000 per student, and did the best on statewide tests. Those high-spending, high-scoring districts also happened to be the most affluent ones with the highest property tax revenues.

In other words, those who can afford to throw money at their public schools, do.

But on my weekday call-in show, about half the listeners who choose to sound off on the issue sound something like this.

CALLER: Just pouring money into schools doesn't work.
ME: Would you care if money was taken out of your child's schools?
CALLER: Yes, money does matter, but the new money could be pilfered, for example.

There in a nutshell is a conversation I've had with callers a thousand times. Money matters for my family, but their families might just squander it.

But here are some other things the S&P study found:

In those high-performing districts, only about 4 percent of the kids are economically disadvantaged. The average school district in the state has 44 percent. And the commission says even spending equally on disadvantaged kids is not enough. The average spending on them has to be MORE to accomplish the same goals. It's only common sense.

Ironically, where money mattered least was at the top. As long as a district had few disadvantaged kids, 10,000-dollar-a-year schools tested nearly as well as 15,000-a-year schools.

The S&P study concluded it would take about 5 billion dollars a year more to educate every child in New York City to the same outcomes as the best performing schools - and half that much just to rescue them from failing. We'll see what the legislature decides to spend, and if it's enough satisfy the court.

The Commission did recommend ways to invest new money wisely - so it's not just pumped away - including smaller class size in the lower grades for disadvantaged kids, but only if the teaching in those small classes improves too.

So quantity matters and quality matters. That means money matters - for everyone's kids.

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