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Sometimes Money IS the solution

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.



  • 1 ag2828
    · Aug 31, 2005 at 9:11 pm

    There is that stereotype about liberals throwing money at things, but they’re certainly not the ones busting the bank nowadays. And however you feel about Iraq, its 300 billion price tag is a fraction of the debt we’ve incurred under this “conservative” administration. The debt, given as almost 8 trillion by the National Debt clock, does not even mention the surplus the “conservatives”
    managed to wipe out after the “liberals” built it up.

    And “conservative” GW Bush chose to give most of this away in tax cuts. One thing he neglected was the levees in New Orleans, with disastrous results that may come back to bite him.

  • 2 JennyD
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 7:57 am

    Can you tell me:

    What is the spending per pupil in NYC schools? I mean, the overall average spending divided by the number of students.

    What is the average class size in k-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grades?

    Could you link to some report or other information that contains this information?

    It would help me understand your point. You say that the class sizes are larger, and spending is lower, but I don’t have any real numbers to use for comparison and understanding. Thanks.

  • 3 kapitalismo
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 10:09 am

    Inadequate funding may in fact be a problem … but its not necessarily for lack of taxpayer support. More often its inefficient distribution of those funds. For instance, teachers’ salaries remain low in inner city district because the Unions organize pay around tenure and not merit or circumstances or whatever. So the young teacher struggle under impossible conditions makes barely a third of what the teacher in the suburbs with a handful of students who has tenure and is about to retire.

  • 4 NYC Educator
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 10:17 am

    Teacher salaries remain low because the Mayor chooses to keep them that way. Successful schools in surrounding suburbs also “organize pay around tenure and not merit or circumstances or whatever” and generally have few of NYC’s problems. These districts choose to seek out, hire, and retain the very best they can find, rather than fool around with gimmicks and buzzwords. Those without merit are rarely hired and virtually never retained.

    NYC’s current pool of one or fewer candidates per teaching position leave it with few options. Back when NYC hired selectively and paid competitively, it was a world-class school system.

  • 5 Maisie
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    JennyD–I’ll jump in for Mike Hirsch here because I have this info.
    Expenditure per pupil in NYC is roughly $12,000 per year. That includes pension costs and debt service costs. Those are sometimes subtracted, and then you see the amount closer to $10,000. In surrounding wealthy districts such as a Scarsdale or Great Neck it can be more like $20,000, again including debt and pension costs.
    Average class sizes in NYC are 22.2 in kindergarten, 23.5 in grades 1-6, and vary from 27 to 29 in middle and high schools depending on grade and subject. The contractual cap is 32 in elementary and 34 in high school. By contrast, the rest of the state averages are 19.2 in kindergarten, 20.8 in grades 1-6, and about 22 in middle and high schools
    A good source of statistical data is the state’s “statistical profile of public school districts,” often called the “655” report (http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/irts/655report/
    It is voluminous, though the data tend to be a little old. A new 655 report for 2005 should be coming out soon, but I don’t see it on the web site yet. Hope this helps,
    PS–I often think about the schools bureaucracy and fear we’re throwing good money after bad. But in fact the NYC school system spends significantly less on administration and proportionally more on its classrooms than most other schools in the state. Partly that’s the result of efficiencies of size, but it’s also because we pay our teachers less and in general have fewer resources. Mike’s right, the question to ask is “Money for what?”

  • 6 JennyD
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    Maisie, that’s terrific. Thanks.

    I appreciate the source data.

    I teach a stat-required course in teacher ed about foundations of education, including policy, history, philosophy, sociology. I try to link the work to practice and school functioning, so new teachers will better understand the work world.

    I’m in Michigan, a state with a somewhat lower cost of living than NYC. We spend $8,000 per pupil, inclusive.

    I know that Newark NJ spends $15,000 per pupil, and has for several years.

    I guess my big question is, if you had more money, what would you spend it on? I mean, what’s the argument for the cost-benefit analysis that would make to me, Jenny taxpayer?

    Also, why couldn’t you start by doing zero-based budgeting in schools and in administration? Rather than funding all the things that exist with more money, how about you build it from scratch and see what you end up with cost-wise?

    Could the UFT argue for that kind of financial innovation?

  • 7 Joe_Thomas
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 7:52 pm

    Maybe we could start with salary increases. Until teachers are paid comparable salaries we will continue to lose some of our best and brightest to competing fields. We would have ‘highly qualified’ teachers in every classroom if the salary schedule matched society’s expectations of teachers.

  • 8 JennyD
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    Joe, I’d pay teachers more in a heartbeat. But not all of them. I want comparable salaries and comparable work conditions. I want to reward the best and encourage them to stay. How can I do that?

  • 9 eumenides
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 11:57 pm


    Smaller classes, more individual instruction, real professional development, school safety agents, better maintanance and school construction.That’s what money can buy. Note the last is an especially big problenm in NY. With land values the highest in the nation, a four story school isn’t likely to be built where a 49 story high-rise office or residential building can go.

  • 10 Joe_Thomas
    · Sep 2, 2005 at 12:05 am

    If salaries were equitable to the amount of work teachers do, the ‘good ones’ would stop leaving. We would then have greater competition for the jobs. The ‘bad’ ones would slowly disappear.

    Money into salaries won’t solve everything, though. We also need to invest in the inner cities. Teachers and schools can only do so much. Society has a part to play, too. When we decide to do that we will start seeing the change we seemingly want.

  • 11 divina
    · Sep 2, 2005 at 8:55 am

    As a lifelong NYer, I attended public schools. Let me tell you about the condition of the schools.

    In the winter, many classrooms were under-heated or over-heated.

    In the summer, there is no air-conditioning, no matter how warm it becomes.

    Often, 1/2 of the classroom was cordoned off due to leaky ceilings, and loose plaster.

    Due to overcrowding, in one school, our lunch period commenced at 10:30am. In another school, we had to split a 40 minute lunch period in half. I can recall many a time being asked to leave so the next group of kids could come in, despite the fact that I was still on line waiting for my lunch.

    A broken window in the dead of winter rarely got repaired.

    Toilet paper: bring your own. There was never toilet paper in the lavatories.

    Text books were usually 7-12 years old and falling apart.

    Is this the conditions we want to subject children to? And what adult wants to work in such an environment?

    So money can do a lot in terms of repairing or constructing adequate facilities.

    And fwiw, take a look at the CBO report. I think if you saw what a miniscule percent of our budget is spent on education, you would realize that your concern about our tax dollars is misplaced.

  • 12 JennyD
    · Sep 2, 2005 at 9:38 am

    Hmmm. This is where I get confused. The school district spends $12,000 per pupil. Yet I’ve visited NYC schools that have no soap in the bathrooms. Forget air conditioning and such. We’re talking soap. Now how can the district spend $12,000 per kid and have no soap? It’s one reason I’m reluctant to spend more.

    Second,Eumenides offered the only comments that said anything about teaching. Smaller classes, okay, how small? And how would teaching change when classes became that small? What would teachers do differently to leverage the small class size and make it advantageous? (BTW, most prof dev is garbage, I agree.)

    I’ve spent the last two years reading and coding transcripts of language arts instruction in disadvantaged, urban elementary schools, in schools much like those in NYC. All the classrooms have behavior issues with kids, that’s a given. But what’s most remarkable is the wide range of instruction. Some of the teaching is brilliant and challenging. Some is a total time waste for students. Some has a goal, some is random.

    I would spend lots more money to get rid of thos variances, and to get ever classroom observation to resemble the best that I’m looking at.

    How can we do it?

  • 13 EdWonk
    · Sep 3, 2005 at 5:35 am

    I think that the solution must be long-term. In our culture, one’s social status is largely determined by how much monetary compensation one earns. It’s sad but true. If we want to attract the very best people to the classroom, we must raise the social status of classroom teachers.

    The place to start that process is by substantially increasing compensation.

    If we did so, there would be a great number of folks who would suddenly be very interested in choosing classroom teaching as a career.

    Then school districts could be very selective about who they employ.

    Like any other aspect of our economy, the law of supply and demand also applies to teachers.

    A “teacher shortage” is an example of when the law is not permitted to operate. Ordinarily, when there is a shortage of labor, wages increase. In the case of teachers, every time there is a shortage, the state floods the market with 1000s of “emergency credentialed” teachers, thereby easing the shortage and reducing (or eliminating) pressure to increase teacher pay.

    At the U.S. Dept. of Education’s website, I asked Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings a question related to this and actually got an answer from her (sort of) on August 31st. See both question and answer on the Dept. of Education’s website by clicking right here. (You may need to scroll down. Look for “Ed from Heber, CA”) As one might expect, her answer touched on the subject of merit pay.

  • 14 Peter Goodman
    · Sep 3, 2005 at 8:43 am

    Education increasingly looks to the business side for answers – and merit pay seems like a “quick” fix – it assumes that folks could be more effective if properly motivated – nonsense – the lesson from the business should be that “teams,” given substantial autonomy and clear goals are highly effective. School systems increasingly reflect old fashioned top down rigid management – a style that the business side rejected decades ago …almost half of all teachers leave within five years – I think the military has a better retention rate! The UFT, the NYC teacher union negotiated a Lead Teacher position whereby experienced teachers earn additional compensation to train new teachers – many unions are open to innovative compensation schedules. Unions, and their members object to management by edict and the failure to respect and listen to their employees.