If it is true that liberals can be guilty of wanting to solve problems by larding taxpayer money on them—a typical right-wing complaint– then conservatives are guilty of simplistic thinking, too. Shrinking every government function except for the police and the military won’t make problems go away, either. The issue is to figure out, paraphrasing Robert Lynd, “money for what?”
In New York schools, inadequate funding goes a long way in explaining high teacher turnover. It plays its fair share in low test scores and graduation rates, in inadequately prepared teachers and administrators. Overcrowded, unsafe schools and crammed-to bursting classrooms can’t be explained any other way. Given their needs, our schools are starved of cash.
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity made this point in thousands of pages of testimony starting in 1993. An entire age cohort of students has passed through the city schools since that lawsuit was first filed.
The original trial judge, Justice Leland DeGrasse, spelled out the spending priorities with disarming clarity: qualified teachers, appropriate class sizes, decent buildings, enough books and supplies, suitable curricula, adequate resources for special needs students and a safe environment. Absent these, public school kids were not getting a “sound, basic education,” –a requirement of the state Constitution.
Supported by the Supreme Court, trashed by the Appellate Division, then reversed by the Appeals Courts, only to be challenged by the Pataki administration, the case is once more in the Appellate Court for review. While leaders of both houses of the state legislature verbally supported a big and deserved jump in state aid to New York City schools, the plan died in the last legislative session when the mayor’s Corporation Council announced that “not one dime” of city money would be contributed to leverage the state’s share of the burden. The result: despite its huge special-needs population, the city spends just $2 for every $3 per pupil that schools in many of its closest suburbs provide.
Are schools better than they were 12 years ago? In many areas, yes. But “better” isn’t “good.” What stands out through the 12 years of legal wrangling are the school system’s failings.
Today, just six of 10 fourth graders and one in three 8th graders meet state reading standards. Only 54 percent of entering freshmen graduate high school four years later. Class sizes are anywhere from a sixth to a third larger than those in the rest of the state, the outcome of the system’s inability to hire and retain quality teachers.
Lack of funding means inadequately trained staff, too. Many of the certified teachers are actually “alternatively certified,” having come into the schools on an “emergency” basis, with limited educational training, experience and—usually–without a Master’s degree. Researchers from Arizona State University and Stanford University found students of alternatively certified teachers significantly underperforming when compared to those taught by regularly certified teachers.
Attrition rates for teachers remain high. Not counting retirements, 3,567 certified teachers left the schools in 2003-04. The DOE’s touted mentoring program, where experienced teachers receive a stipend to help novice teachers, assigns 17 teachers per mentor, a number that assures teaching recruits will be left to flounder much of the time.
The two means of attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, especially in poor or low-performing schools, are of course higher salaries and better working conditions. New York City did widen its candidate pool once starting salaries rose with the 2000-03 contract. But that was then. The system has now gone more than two years without a new contract, while salaries in other areas of the state have climbed. Inflation alone has all but erased the gains the city made, even as suburban salaries continue to rise, yet the city’s bargaining stance on a new contract remains hostile.
Meanwhile, working conditions remain tough. There are a lot of inexperienced principals and administrators in the schools, and disruptions are rife from the too-rapid creation of some 150 new schools. And while DOE flooded the 16 most dangerous high schools with safety personnel, crimes and safety incidents rose in other schools.
So another generation of city school children are not prepared for college, or work, or the rigors of citizenship. In their interest, and surely in this case, money is the solution.