In school reform, billions of dollars — but not much bang
When Mayor Bloomberg took control of the city's schools, he made a solemn promise to raise student achievement and rein in a notoriously inefficient and money-wasting school system. In fact, in his January 2003 speech unveiling his administration's Children First reforms, the mayor suggested that the $12 billion then going to the schools was sufficient to bring about academic improvement. That's because he and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein were now going to "make sure we get the most value for the school system's dollar."
Five years later, we have new, unimpeachable data on the schools that allows us to assess whether the mayor's promise to deliver a much bigger education bang for the taxpayers' buck has been fulfilled.
The short answer: not by a longshot. First, let's examine the dollar side of the equation. The 2003 budget for the schools, Bloomberg's first, was $12.5 billion, including pension costs and debt service. About $1.2 billion of this total came from federal education funds, another $5.6 billion from the state, and $5.6 billion from direct city contributions. The current budget, including pension and debt service, stands at $19.7 billion. This represents an increase of $7 billion - more than 50% - in total education spending in five years.
All that money didn't come equally from those three funding sources. The increased federal contribution has been only $700 million, and state aid is up by some $2.3 billion. The increase in direct city education spending during the Bloomberg administration is a spectacular $4.3 billion, or 76% - the biggest surge in school spending in the city's history.
And now, with the release late last week of the urban district portion of the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), we have the most complete picture of how much - or, to be more accurate, how little - academic improvement that extra $7 billion has bought for our schools.
Every two years, the NAEP tests a sample of each state's fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading, and also compares outcomes in 11 of the nation's large urban school districts. The federal NAEP tests, often referred to as the nation's report card, provide the most reliable comparison of student academic achievement among the states, as well as of the degree of student improvement in particular states or districts.
In eighth-grade math, however, New York was the only one of the 11 districts to be more or less flat from the 2003 to the 2007 tests. And that was true for every ethnic and racial subgroup in the city. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests were even more discouraging for the city. There was no significant change in reading proficiency for fourth-graders from 2003 to 2007. And reading scores were actually down in the eighth grade. The average scale score for our students went from 252 in 2003 to 249 in 2007.
The reality is that $7 billion in extra education spending has so far produced only pennies' worth of academic improvement in most grades. The sooner we all face up to that bottom line, the sooner we can start speaking honestly about how to remedy the situation.
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