Panel Urges N.Y. to Enrich School Funding

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A state panel recommended last week that New York state spend billions more dollars on public schools over the next five years and boost state efforts to hold schools accountable for the new spending.

The New York State Commission on Education Reform, established last September by Gov. George E. Pataki to address a court order, released its detailed financing plan that urges lawmakers to raise education spending between $2.5 billion and $5.6 billion, but leaves the specifics up to them.

The commission also called for the formation of a state Office of Educational Accountability to operate independently from the New York state education department and oversee any new spending on schools.

"Now we ask that New York’s policymakers use this report in the same spirit in which it was developed—with a shared commitment to improving our public schools for the benefit of all of New York’s children, especially those in educationally struggling areas," commission Chairman Frank G. Zarb said in a statement announcing the plan on March 29.

The 22-member panel included educators, business leaders, clergy, and state and municipal officials.

The commission report also proposes that a greater proportion of new funding be sent to districts with greater numbers of impoverished students and English- language learners, and that no district see its state funding drop. It offers proceeds from video-lottery games as a way to raise additional money for education.

State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, whose responsibilities extend from prekindergarten through college and beyond, said he did not see why the commission suggested a new agency to oversee school accountability when the state education department does so already.

"Their proposal would require a large bureaucracy, a large staff, a large amount of money to be spent on what is essentially redundant," said the spokesman, Jonathan Burman.

Whose Plan?

A state appeals court has set a July 30 deadline for the legislature to approve a plan for increased school aid. If lawmakers fail to come up with a plan that satisfies the order, the court can appoint a master to implement the court’s own plan. ("Court Orders New York City Funding Shift," July 9, 2003.)

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which sued the state in 1993 over state funding for New York City’s schools, unveiled a spending plan of its own two days after the release of the commission’s report. The group raised the stakes by requesting between $6.6 billion and $9 billion in new spending over the next four years.

Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the campaign, said he wanted to see a "25 percent down payment" in new school funding this coming year, or about $2.4 billion statewide. The state, he said, should set up a task force to help districts find the best ways to use any additional money.

Mr. Rebell said his organization would release an accountability plan this month that demands comprehensive planning in school districts for how to spend the money. His group’s blueprint also will include a call for the state to install "distinguished educators" in struggling schools to help guide improvements, modeled on an approach used in Kentucky.

Bloomberg Unsatisfied

Under the plan from Mr. Rebell’s group, the 1.1 million- student New York City district, the nation’s largest, would get an additional 39 percent in state funding, about $5.6 billion over five years.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called last week for at least $5.3 billion in new funding for the city’s schools from the state over the next five years.

The mayor added in a March 31 speech that he opposed any "across-the-board mandates, funded or unfunded," from the state.

Mr. Bloomberg envisions using $830 million of the additional state money each year on new "incentive and merit programs for principals and teachers" and more training for educators and parents.

The city would spend $1.9 billion a year toward early intervention for young children, including universal preschool in the city. The mayor also proposed class-size limits of 20 students in grades K-3 and more extended school days for children who need extra help. He said he would also continue the expansion of "small schools" of fewer than 500 students each in the city.

Mayor Bloomberg warned that state lawmakers should pass a plan to increase school funding, and not leave it to the courts. Otherwise, "it will be a dereliction of duty that will only compound the neglect of our public schoolchildren," he said.

Rural Watch

Rural education leaders also will be watching the legislative debate in Albany this spring.

"There is a degree of enthusiasm, but there’s a greater degree of concern" over the funding plan, said Michael Joseph Jr., a Zarb commission member and a former executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York, based at Cornell University in Ithaca.

"There’s always the concern: Are we going to be left behind?" he said.

Mr. Joseph said he would have preferred that the commission base its findings on actual needs in struggling school systems, rather than a comparison of costs between successful school systems and others.

High-achieving districts should be "left alone," he contended, while districts that would benefit directly from the aid increase should face some new standards for how they spend any extra money.

A retired superintendent of the 1,000-student Marathon district in the south-central part of New York state, Mr. Joseph said he expects to see some new aid for many of the state’s roughly 400 rural and small-town districts during the next budget year.

"Will it resolve all the problems? I doubt it," he said. "Will it be a step in the right direction? Of course."

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Pages 18, 21

Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as Panel Urges N.Y. to Enrich School Funding
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