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New York City
November 2002

Silent Fall
By Stuart Dunn

A great deal has been made of the fact that this year school opened with a peace that has not existed for a number of years. Mayor Bloomberg has gained the authority over the schools that has eluded former mayors. The controversial Board of Education has been abolished. The mayor has appointed his own schools chancellor, and the chancellor has won the right to select superintendents. The UFT, still celebrating a contract granting significant salary increases with few concessions, is silent. All is well­or is it?

The public school system remains deeply troubled. While governance changes and teacher satisfaction were needed, these will only be meaningful if they work toward improving the children’s education. Just how bad are the schools? State officials have identified thirty percent of New York City’s schools as failing to meet English and mathematics standards. Despite some improvements, the performance of the city’s school children remains dismal. Recent test results still show less than one-third of the 8th graders meeting standards in math. Schools and classrooms are overcrowded. Problem children are warehoused in special education from which they hardly ever escape. Over forty percent of the children entering high school fail to graduate. But not to worry. The mayor says New York’s are the best of the nations large-city schools. Small consolation.

It is not that we don’t know how to fix the problem. The New York Times reports that at PS 138, a predominantly black and Hispanic school in Crown Heights, close to fifty-five percent of the students met the state standard in math this year, as compared with only nineteen percent last year. What was the secret? A committed principal and teaching staff, longer school days, and special attention to students who were lagging behind, paid for by funds provided by the district superintendent. But, unless things change, rather than replicating the PS 138 results, things are likely to get worse. Leadership is needed from the top down. Motivations, other than personal satisfaction, for principals and teachers to succeed must be provided. Funding must be added to support the extra programs. The city’s school funding has been cut by $100 million this year, and a further reduction of $350 million is expected next year. And, the shortfall is far greater than that. The school population is growing, with increasing numbers of children entering school lacking English proficiency. Almost $1 billion is needed to fund teacher salary increases, new hires, teacher training, staffing shortfalls and after-school programs. School officials tell us that the instructional budget will not be affected by the budget cuts. Where will the money come from? The mayor should not attempt to solve the city’s financial problems by faulty accounting. We have seen too much of this by Fortune 500 companies and the Federal Government.

Instead of peace in the school system we need war on illiteracy, innumeracy and the status quo. Instead of silence we need the chancellor to articulate objectives and define programs. (The recent announcement of the program designed to leave no child behind is a start, but only a start.) We need an outcry for the funds needed to do the job. We need to identify the revenue sources and economies necessary to provide these funds. The appointment of Caroline Kennedy as Chief Executive of the new office of Strategic Partnerships is good news, but, the private sector cannot be expected to make up the shortfall in funding.

Governor Pataki cannot be permitted to coast through a reelection campaign without being held accountable for his failure to fund NYC schools adequately or equitably. The endorsement of the Governor by the UFT, and other unions, illustrates just how cynical and self-serving the unions have become.

The mayor and the chancellor cannot be permitted to pass the buck on who is responsible for making the schools work. If we do not fix the schools now, the pressure to privatize will continue to grow. It matters not that private schools have not proven themselves capable of doing a better job; desperate people will seek desperate solutions. We must not permit a silence to exist in education this fall. The achievements of the past year were not ends in themselves but means to an end. The hard part has just begun. #

City: State:

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