Reading, ‘Riting, and Spending
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Debate over the role of money in education is igniting anew as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit over school funding heads to the state’s highest court yet again on Tuesday, and the good news is that it’s still not too late to re-examine the premise that more spending equals a better education. The CFE lawsuit is founded on the idea that the equation holds and that idea has absorbed the courts for so long that students who were kindergartners when the case began are now in college if they’re lucky.
A dispatch by our Sarah Garland this week casts some light on the issue. Ms. Garland examined the New York public school districts with the highest and lowest per pupil spending. A small town in the Adirondacks, Queensbury, spends $8,553 a student each year on its public schools. Bridgehampton, on Long Island, spends $51,828 a student. Despite the variation, the schools’ test scores are practically indistinguishable. At both schools, more than 80% of fourth graders passed the state reading exam and more than 90% passed the math test.
Some advocates of more spending claim such comparisons are misleading. This is the view of the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, whose letter to the editor appears nearby. Some claim that such analysis don’t account for higher costs associated with buildings, supplies, or retaining qualified teachers in urban centers like the city. Ms. Weingarten also points up how some forms of instruction, like special education, can be enormously expensive and yield low test scores, thus skewing the numbers.
Ms. Weingarten proposes judging the efficacy of school spending by comparing districts whose demographics and challenges are similar. Fortunately, New York City provides an opportunity to do just that. Per pupil spending in the city has doubled over the past decade and for much of that time, scores haven’t changed discernably. The schools have only started improving as Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have taken the reins and introduced new curricula and accountability for teachers and principals, as well as encouraging the development of public charter schools. Those innovations have been possible without markedly increased spending.
Ms. Weingarten posits that “school spending is as much about how you spend it as it is about how much you spend.” We couldn’t agree more; if only Judge DeGrasse grasped this point. In any event, the city schools have fallen short, thanks, in many cases, to union-negotiated work rules that make it difficult to fire incompetent teachers or administrators. Just look at the 44 assistant principals for whom Chancellor Klein had to create desk jobs, at a cost of $5.2 million, just to keep them out of actual schools. Were the city to cut per pupil spending by removing such incompetents from the payroll, it would actually benefit students.
Beyond the unconstitutional attempt by the courts to engage in appropriations, the biggest problem with the CFE suit has been that for 13 years it has been distracting attention from the fact that there are more serious problems facing the schools than the share of dollars in the state that go to New York City. Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein have understood that and charged ahead with reforms that are actually making a difference. Maybe one day we’ll finally be able to dispense with the fiction that cash is the key ingredient to success.