Education Funding

Tighter Link Sought Between Spending, Achievement in N.Y.

By Michele McNeil — September 04, 2007 9 min read
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As states look for ways to hold school districts accountable for how they use big increases in K-12 funding, New York’s experience may offer a test case in directing the flow of that new money.

Under the state’s ambitious “Contracts for Excellence” program, 55 of New York’s 705 districts will share $430 million in extra aid this school year, but are required to file detailed plans that limit the spending to five strategies intended to raise student achievement.

The early signs are that districts are complying with the new rules. According to a review by Education Week of contracts available as of last week—representing some three-quarters of the new funding—about half the increase will be spent this year on reducing class size, one of the five state-mandated categories.

Another quarter of the new money will go to increase students’ time on task in those districts, usually by lengthening the school day or year.

But other categories highlighted by the state were proving to be less popular. About a sixth of the funding will go to teacher- and principal-quality initiatives, while an even smaller proportion—about one dollar in 10—will be spent on restructuring middle and high schools. And little of the new money will be spent to expand full-day kindergarten and prekindergarten.

While it’s far too early to tell whether the strings attached to the new aid will bring about results, Helaine Doran, the deputy executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a New York City-based advocacy group for school funding, said an increase in achievement is crucial.

“Otherwise, you contribute to a conversation that money doesn’t matter,” she said.

As with any new accountability system, however, there are major kinks to be worked out in the sweeping improvement plan designed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat elected last November.

Chief among them is the four-month time frame for the state education department to draft rules for the program and for the 55 districts to craft their plans on spending the money.

As of last week, with school openings just days away in most of the state, the education department still hadn’t approved any of the contracts but hoped to do so this month.

‘Do This Right’

Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the department’s senior deputy commissioner of education for P-16, said all of the contracts had been reviewed and her staff was working with some districts to fine-tune their plans.

“It was very important for us to do this right,” said Ms. Duncan-Poitier, whose staff spent the summer making presentations around the state and extending their phone hours into the evening to help districts. “This is about making a difference, and we have really made a commitment to this.”

Districts, though, were frustrated by the tight deadline to develop and submit their plans, and by the limit on their spending to five categories—restrictions that don’t apply to spending of general state aid in the state’s other districts.

Contracts for Excellence

The 55 districts taking part in the nearly $430 million project pledge that a majority of their additional aid will be spent in five categories:

• class-size reduction
• teacher and principal quality
• full-day pre-K and kindergarten
• longer school day
• middle and high school restructuring

Contract amount: $11.2 million
Highlights: $6.7 million to increase time on task, which includes adding 20 days to the school calendar in 16 of the lowest-performing schools.

Contract amount: $7.6 million
Highlights: $877,456 for a late-afternoon/evening school for students seeking a regular high school diploma—one of the few districts to take advantage of an experimental option under the supplemental spending program.

Contract amount: $1.2 million
Highlights: $40,500 for professional development, in part to launch a literacy task force.

1.1 million
Contract amount: $258 million
Highlights: $40 million to increase the number of sites for autism spectrum-disorder program sites and to open more team-teaching classrooms for students with disabilities.

SOURCES: Individual school districts; Education Week

“There was a lot of scrambling, because we already had our budget in place,” said John Abbott, the deputy superintendent of the 3,500-student East Irondequoit Central Schools in Rochester, which got an additional $1.7 million, a nearly 18 percent bump. “At first, we couldn’t even begin to spend this money. One of the options was lengthening the school day, but you’re not going to do that on the fly.”

School finance accountability has grown more important in recent years as states ramped up their K-12 spending. This budget year, total state spending on schools nationally is expected to grow 10 percent, with at least 10 states—including Texas and Connecticut—granting double-digit increases, according to a survey by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. New York’s increase was nearly 10 percent.

Spending is likely to face even greater scrutiny now that states face a projected downturn in their economies for the rest of the decade, also foreshadowed in the NCSL study. (“Fiscal Forecast for States Begins to Darken,” Aug. 15, 2007.)

Two school finance experts, Allan R. Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education, and Lawrence O. Picus, a professor at the University of Southern California’s education school, urge constraints on spending so that money can be directed, in particular, to the areas of instructional coaches for teachers and certified teacher-tutors for struggling students. Their research in Arkansas and Wyoming has shown that district administrators, when left to make their own decisions, often will spend much of their state aid on course electives and higher teacher salaries, rather than on improving core academic offerings. (“As Budgets Swell, Spending Choices Get New Scrutiny,” March 21, 2007.)

Earmarking state money for certain programs, or aiming it in certain directions, isn’t new. Molly A. Hunter, the managing director the National Access Network, which is based at Columbia University and tracks school finance litigation, pointed to Kentucky’s education finance overhaul in the early 1990s, which largely dictated what money was to be spent on, such as computers in classrooms.

But, Ms. Hunter said, “New York is unique in that it builds on other things that have been done.”

Mandated Increases

In all, New York state pumped an additional $1.76 billion into pre-K-12 funding, bringing total school spending to $19.6 billion. The spending increase was prompted largely by the state’s highest court in a ruling last year in a New York City case that declared the school funding system unconstitutional. (“Aid Award Cut in Suit Over N.Y.C.,” Nov. 29, 2006.)

About a quarter of the increase is subject to the strings set out in the Contracts for Excellence program set up during the budget process, and New York City is getting the biggest chunk, $258 million.

A district must file a contract detailing how the extra money will be spent if it meets two criteria: an increase of at least 10 percent or $15 million in school aid over the previous year, and at least one school in need of corrective action under the state accountability law.

“Contract” money can’t be used on existing programs or for across-the-board teacher raises, but must go—with an exception for program experiments—to launch or expand initiatives in the five specified areas. Only a few districts sought to fund an “experimental” approach, which required a separate application and had to be accompanied by research and a partnership with a college or university.

Districts also appeared reluctant to pour money into potentially expensive new programs, or even into popular but costly existing programs such as early-childhood education, out of concern that the new funding stream might eventually trickle out.

“We were leery. If we start doing this and the state pulls the grant, then what?” said Bill Lynch, superintendent of the 4,000-student Fulton City School District near Syracuse, describing the dilemma posed by creating new programs.

Greater Transparency

A primary goal of the Contracts for Excellence, as outlined by Gov. Spitzer in an education speech in January, is to bring transparency to plans for “serious reform.” Yet how districts are embracing that transparency varies greatly.

Education Week requested copies of the contracts from all 55 eligible districts, and received about 40 percent of them. Some didn’t respond to the request, and at least two said, when first contacted, that they didn’t keep copies of their contracts after submitting them.

Other districts didn’t want to make their contracts public because they said the plans were incomplete, even though the contracts govern spending during the current school year, and all districts were required to get public comment on their plans.

Yet several districts were very forthcoming. The 1.1 million-student New York City schools, the 2,280-student Norwich City School District, and the 10,000-student Arlington Central School District, for example, posted their contracts online and outlined in detail to parents and members of the community how the money would be spent.

New York City has proposed a comprehensive plan to reduce class size by hiring an additional 1,300 teachers and to develop 40 high-quality new schools for students who otherwise would attend low-performing schools.

The district also wants to use $40 million to establish 430 new team-teaching special education classrooms that pair a general education teacher with a special education teacher. And it plans to spend $14 million on more student assessments throughout the school year.

“The Contracts for Excellence are based on the recognition that we are accountable for delivering the best possibility for success to the students furthest from it,” said the city’s schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, in a statement. The district held five public meetings to discuss the plan and set up an e-mail address specifically for feedback.

The hearings were not without controversy, as school advocates argued that the city’s plan was too vague and its priorities skewed.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which filed the finance lawsuit in 1993, criticized the district for directing more than 40 percent of the aid to high-performing schools.

The district is working with the state on making changes to ease those concerns.

Varied Priorities

Elsewhere in the state, districts are finding a variety of ways to cope with the restrictions on how their new funding can be spent.

Buffalo’s 38,000-student public school system is using about half its $11 million to increase “time on task,” adding an hour of school each day, plus another 20 days to the school year, for 16 of the district’s most struggling schools.

The 2,600-student Public Schools of the Tarrytowns is using nearly one-third of its $604,000 to double middle-school instruction time in English and language arts.

And the 10,000-student Schenectady City School District is spending about $610,000 to hire an instructional coach for each of 10 elementary schools.

While pleased with the extra funding, some districts worry about how the state department of education will provide oversight to school districts.

To measure compliance, state education officials say they will examine whether individual schools have achieved or surpassed adequate yearly progress, the key benchmark under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, Ms. Duncan-Poitier of the education department said staff members will visit every district in the program over the school year.

James P. McCarthy, superintendent of the 3,500-student South Glens Falls schools, said his district is spending most of its $1.2 million in contract money on class-size reduction.

“I endorse the concept of accountability,” he said. “But of greater concern will be the assessment, and how our results are used.”

Library Intern Joie Sciremammano contributed to this story.

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.


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