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Rebell Criticizes Mayor's New Funding Formula

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Published: 1/25/2007 9:28:00 AM

Nix Mike's flawed school funding fix

Daily News Op-Ed
Thursday, January 25th, 2007

The plan unveiled last week by Mayor Bloomberg for further restructuring of the New York City school system has many good points, but the proposal to alter the city's school financing system is not one of them.

The mayor is proposing an approach called Fair Student Funding (FSF), under which many city funding streams would be replaced by a single sum of money that would follow each child to whichever school he or she attends. Children whom it costs more to teach (because they're poor, disabled, English learners or low-achieving) would be assigned additional money - 5% to 20% above the base amount for students from poverty backgrounds in the examples provided by the mayor.

The mayor's goal - to make school funding more equitable inside the city limits - is laudable. But FSF may not redistribute the right amounts of money to the right places and could embroil the system in unnecessary wrangling about percentages and phase-ins.

The fact is, some of our schools start out needing much more money than others because of years of underfunding, misplaced priorities and neglect; while leveling the playing field sounds good in theory, in practice it ignores that reality. So instead of introducing an abstract system for redistributing funds, the chancellor should take an immediate inventory of where those real needs are - and then go about fixing them, urgently.

For example, the Court of Appeals in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity school finance litigation was appalled to learn that although all high school students must pass a Regents exam in laboratory science to get a diploma, 31 high schools in the city lacked functioning science labs. Similarly, hundreds of middle schools in high-needs areas have no certified math, science or bilingual teachers. We need a blunt assessment of such needs and crash program to fix injustices like those.

Even from a long-range perspective, over-reliance on FSF is flawed. In other cities where an FSF approach has been tried, the determination of the weightings - the exact price tags to be assigned to different types of students - has been mired in politics, and the amounts allocated to students with special needs have been minimized and distorted.

Although the expert cost analyses undertaken in the CFE case indicated that the extra weighting needed for impoverished students must be in the range of 50% to 100%, FSF systems typically provide much lower amounts. Cincinnati has implemented a system that provides just 5% extra for students from poor backgrounds, and 29% extra for the gifted and talented students.

Finally, FSF dodges the biggest funding problem currently facing our public schools - the lack of adequate funding overall.

Parents in schools that would see a loss of funding under the mayor's proposed scheme are already expressing alarm. Robbing Peter to pay Paul could seriously divide the public education community at a time when all supporters of our schools should be united in pressing the governor and the Legislature to provide an adequate amount of funding, well above the minimum $2 billion constitutional floor the court established.

The mayor and the chancellor should be applauded for their desire to help the city's neediest students, but the best way to do that is simply to identify their needs and meet them. The system they have proposed is just playing with abstract - and inadequate - numbers.

Rebell is executive director of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. He was the co-counsel for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in its lawsuit against New York State.