The Finances of Educational Reform
Pundits have greeted Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Children First plan as a bold departure from almost 30 years of community control.
They have it wrong. Children First is a bold departure from 105 years of a strong mid-level education bureaucracy in New York City. Under a myriad of different governing structures since 1898, now relegated to the dustbin of obscure urban history, districts superintendents and their large staffs have held god-like powers. Principals have often been relegated to the status of mere factotums.
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have subjected the school system to the same analysis that has dominated corporate restructuring over the last two decades. Large, inefficient bureaucracies have been replaced by team building at the local level to enhance staff performance. It makes sense. The education of children takes place at the school level, not at the district office or by edict.
As a coalition, we have been strong supporters of school-site decision-making. In the fall of 2000, Educational Priorities Panel members went to England and Scotland to visit schools in high-poverty areas in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of school-site decision making after more than a decade of its implementation in the UK. We wanted to know if it resulted in school improvement.
On the negative side, we found a continual churning of top-down initiatives, some of which were implemented by poorly trained consultants. On the positive side, we saw a strong centralized system of education that was balanced by a strong management team at each school. Even in schools we visited that had an enrollment of only 200 students, the head teacher had the support of two assistant head teachers and a bursar who dealt with administrative tasks so that the other administrators could focus on instruction. Another advantage of the school management team was that it nurtured and developed a larger pool of effective head teachers. In contrast, especially during the Giuliani administration, many small New York City schools have only one administrator—an overworked and overwhelmed principal counting the days until retirement.
The success or failure of Children First revolves around whether the plan ultimately builds the capacity of school-site administrators and teachers to improve instruction. It’s a tall order. Schools serving high-poverty communities with many recent immigrants have to provide a better and more consistent instructional environment than the norm. Yet in the high-cost downstate area, from Rockland to Suffolk County, all other school districts spend more per-pupil than New York City.
This funding gap means larger classes, fewer teachers, and fewer school administrators in New York City. Without a staff person to assume non-instructional tasks, how much team building will get done? No amount of training for new principals will prepare them to turn around schools if they remain chronically understaffed.
A victory in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, now before the state’s highest court, could help make Children First a success. In the meantime, however, it is an open question whether reform without sufficient funding for schools will work.#
Noreen Connell is Executive Director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of 27 civic organizations that monitors the impact on children of administrative and budget decisions.