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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Tue, Nov 20, 2007

City Bows to State on a School Improvement Plan

By Jennifer Medina, The New York Times

After months of negotiation, the City Department of Education capitulated to state education officials on how to spend millions of dollars in new state aid by agreeing to shift more money to reduce class sizes and to spend more on low-performing schools.

The money was part of a multimillion-dollar increase in state education aid, the result of a long legal battle over school financing.

Last year, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislators in Albany agreed to send an additional $1.03 billion to city schools, with about $700 million coming from the state. But the legislation required the city to seek state approval on how to spend $258 million of the money to improve schools.

It was the first time that the state had exerted power over local school budgets; previously, it had done little to mandate how general operating money was used locally.

The state’s final approval for New York and 54 other cities was announced yesterday at a news conference in Buffalo. And the agreement on how New York City would spend its money was substantially different from what the city proposed months ago.

“Simply spending more was not going to help students who were in greatest need,” Governor Spitzer said at the news conference. He added that the agreements with local districts “will ensure that our historic increase in state aid is not wasted, but instead that it will go directly toward implementing reforms that have been proven to increase student performance.”

The State Education Department will closely monitor how the districts spend the money and what effect it has.

New York City education officials submitted their spending plan in July, and state approval was initially expected in August. But the city’s proposal soon came under criticism from state officials and advocacy groups.

For example, the city wanted to spend slightly less than half of the money to reduce class sizes. State officials questioned whether that was enough and wanted details about how the city would carry out its plan.

Officials and advocacy groups also questioned whether the city’s plan would send enough money to so-called high-needs schools, which typically have larger populations of non-English-speaking, low-income or disabled students. In addition, they criticized the city’s proposal to use the money to administer more standardized tests throughout the school year.

“The city made a dramatic change from their first iteration,” said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the senior deputy education commissioner for New York State, adding that city officials had been cooperative. “Their class-size reduction plan was not very strong, and we ended up in a place where we have clear base line data to judge them on.”

The city also agreed to shift about $45 million to schools other than the ones it had intended to get the aid, Ms. Duncan-Poitier said. The state, in addition, told the city it could not use $13 million to pay for standardized tests.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said at the news conference that the agreement was a “stronger and better plan” for school spending. He praised state officials, adding, “Working closely with the state, and with helpful feedback from educators, parents and advocates, we developed a plan that makes success more likely for our highest-need students and schools.”

Although the money is a fraction of the city’s $17 billion education budget, advocates said an important precedent had been set for the next several years, when the amount of money subject to state approval was expected to increase.

Nearly 60 percent of the $258 million, about $152 million, will be spent on reducing class size in New York City.

“The state seemed to say, ‘You just can’t cut the money the way you did,’” said Helaine Doran, deputy director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that sued 14 years ago, demanding billions of dollars more for city schools. “They did their due diligence. I think that says something for the future.”

But Ms. Doran and other advocates questioned whether spending money on 75 middle and high schools was enough to affect class size across the city.

Still, Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group, said the agreement was a victory for parents and others who had fought for more equitable school funding for years.

“This is the first day that funding is actually flowing into the classrooms in a way that is directed to needy kids and focusing on the best practice,” Mr. Easton said. “A lot of people thought that this day would never come.”


Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >