Everyone loves equity - the US Department of Education, the New York City Department of Education, insert your hometown Department of Education here. If you’ve got a shaky initiative in mind, best to back it up with the equity line.
Certainly that’s the strategy Joel Klein has used in New York City. Want to change the admissions process for gifted and talented programs? It’s about equity! (Even when doing so shuts out poor kids.) Want to close down comprehensive high schools? It’s about equity! (Even if the most disadvantaged kids can’t access those new small schools.) Want to use dollars that the state legislature specifically earmarked for the most disadvantaged kids to plug holes in a budget you cut yourself? It’s about equity! (Even if the number of central employees has increased by 18% since 2004 - a jobs program for the Ivy League.)
When it comes to school funding, what does it mean to treat students “equitably?” Does equity imply treating each student the same by providing each student the same level of funding? Or does equity require a recognition that students bring different levels of disadvantage to school, and as a result, disadvantaged students must be treated differently in order to be treated equitably?
In 2007, when the city was bulldozing through its “Fair Student Funding” program, NYC Chancellor Joel Klein argued that educational equity required differential treatment. Poor students face formidable obstacles to school success, Klein explained, and the allocation of tax-levied funds in New York City should reflect that reality.
It was also in this compensatory spirit that the remedy emerging from New York’s adequacy suit - now known as the Contracts for Excellence - was designed. Three rules were applied to these funds. First, these funds must be spent on six program areas, including class size reduction, time on task, teacher and principal quality initiatives, full day pre-kindergarten, middle and high school restructuring, and model programs for English Language Learners. Second, these funds must be spent on those students with the greatest educational needs. Finally - and most relevant to this budget debate - these funds must be used to supplement, not supplant, the city’s school funding allocations. The idea is that these dollars represent additional investments New York City’s most disadvantaged children.
This budget cycle, fairness and equity, according to Joel Klein, require universalism - specifically, a universal budget cut - not differential treatment. The city has cut tax-levied funds to all schools, which will be offset by Contracts for Excellence funds for the neediest schools. But the city’s more advantaged schools are facing substantial cuts because they won’t receive more state money. Joel Klein is now arguing that an “equitable” solution to this budget problem is for the state to release the restrictions on these Contracts for Excellence funds so that all schools will take a 1.4% cut. And he claims, with remarkable chutzpah, that it is the state’s fault, not the city’s fault for cutting budgets in the face of a projected $4.5 billion budget surplus, that some schools will suffer more than others.
Ultimately, if equity can be called upon to support any action - even those that nakedly reallocate dollars set aside to serve the city’s most disadvantaged students - then equity means nothing at all.
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