To the Editor:
In his Commentary “Why Adequacy Lawsuits Matter” (Aug. 11, 2004), Michael A. Rebell, the executive director and counsel of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a New York City-based legal-advocacy group, either ignores or mischaracterizes my arguments as to why adequacy lawsuits are the wrong answer for our kids. (“Adequacy Lawsuits: The Wrong Answer for Our Kids,” Commentary, June 9, 2004.)
First, he does not address my central point. Given the failure of huge spending increases on education to improve student achievement in the past, there must be fundamental changes in how school districts spend money, including how they pay teachers, if we hope for better results in the future. Unfortunately, the primary supporters of adequacy litigation oppose such changes. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”
Second, Mr. Rebell purports to support strong accountability systems. However, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s proposed “accountability” plan for New York, which he cites as an example of the “next generation” of such plans, is focused on holding the state liable for providing even more resources to school districts that fail to effectively use their increased funding, so that a district that fails to educate its students qualifies for even more state assistance. The plan pays only lip service to holding students, teachers, and schools accountable, yet it is these latter types of accountability systems that research shows are getting results.
Third, Mr. Rebell cites many new programs and facilities in New Jersey as an example of what adequacy litigation can accomplish. He misses the point. Clearly, adequacy suits result in more spending; however, the relevant issue is whether such spending has raised student achievement. It speaks volumes when Mr. Rebell discusses all the new resources in New Jersey’s schools, but is silent on whether such additional resources have improved student achievement.
Fourth, he cites extreme examples, such as bus drivers teaching math, and implies that these circumstances are common. No source is given for these examples. However, if it is New York City, which spends over $250,000 per classroom, it is hard to imagine how such shortcomings could be the fault of the state or a lack of funding. The courts, however, rarely consider local mismanagement in assessing the causes of low student achievement. This leaves local problems to fester while the fight over more money from the state dominates the agenda.
Finally, the “cost out” studies cited by Mr. Rebell must be carefully scrutinized. For example, such a study sponsored by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity is based on having extremely small class sizes (14 students) in New York City’s high-poverty elementary schools, with 1½ teachers in each classroom. Because the union contract limits the time a teacher can actually teach to three hours and 45 minutes a day in such schools, this translates into almost three teachers to staff a class of 14 students for the entire day. This is in addition to a whole host of other special programs for such schools. It is no wonder that a Massachusetts judge recently characterized a similar study in that state’s adequacy case as a “wish list.”
Alfred A. Lindseth