How to Spend $5.6 Billion? Heed Those in the Classrooms
New York Times
December 15, 2004
ON EDUCATION By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
THERE are more than a thousand public schools in New York City, strewn like the
islands of an archipelago from Far Rockaway to TriBeCa to Co-op City, and the
steep red brick building just off Fordham Road in the Bronx could represent many
of them. Middle School 45 was built in 1911, barely a decade after the
consolidation of modern New York and its Board of Education, and it was designed
by C. B. J. Snyder, the signature architect of public schools in the city.
M.S. 45 has always been a school for immigrants and the children of immigrants -
Jews and Italians for its first half-century, Mexicans and Dominicans and
Albanians more recently, with a Nigerian or Pakistani fresh from Kennedy Airport
likely to materialize at the registration counter on any given day. It is a
school of the poor and near-poor, with more than 90 percent of its pupils
eligible for a subsidized school lunch.
And, with per-student spending of $9,200, less than three-quarters of the
average statewide, M.S. 45 typifies the financial plight of public schools in
New York. That disparity was the subject of the decade-long suit brought in
State Supreme Court by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity against the State of New
York, a case that moved toward resolution last month with the recommendation by
a court-appointed panel to increase aid to city schools by $5.6 billion a year,
or 43 percent above the current figure.
So the voices of people at M.S. 45 ought to be heard and heeded in the
discussion of how to spend that money.
Yet already, in the two weeks since the financing recommendation was handed
down, one can sense exactly such voices - the voices of teachers and
administrators and parents - being muffled, drowned out, ignored.
One hears the argument between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E.
Pataki over how much of the $5.6 billion the city will or won't pay. One hears
the predictable complaints from conservatives that money does not solve
problems, except presumably money in the form of tax cuts. One hears the
proposal from Chancellor Joel I. Klein, particularly its emphasis on expanding
early-childhood education and reducing class sizes in the lowest few grades.
Meanwhile, at M.S. 45, Tom Wilson imagines having a fellow teacher assigned to
his math classes, where he scrambles from table to table, trying to explain
algebraic expression to 31 pupils. Linda Kelly and Adina Rosenbaum, the only
guidance counselors for 1,500 students, envision another counselor to help
navigate 500 eighth graders a year through the byzantine process of applying for
high school admission.
Ana Vasquez, the parent coordinator, thinks about giving each child double
textbooks, so one set could always be at home, and holding training sessions to
teach parents how to help their children with homework, and having every school
notice translated into Spanish.
Walk through the school, from room to room, and the suggestions continue. Money
for the repair and updating of computers. Money for field trips so teachers
won't have to run bake sales to afford them. Money for a photocopy machine on
each floor of the five-story building. Money for each child to have a dictionary
and a thesaurus. Money to hire an art teacher.
Even with its low-income and immigrant students, even operating at 120 percent
of capacity, M.S. 45 has managed to exceed citywide averages on math and
language arts tests. It has fallen short in a few categories of required
"average yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind law, not because of
students' scores but because of the level of participation by disabled and
bilingual students on standardized tests. Still, staff member after staff member
speaks of the identical predicament: too many needs, too little time.
"You're working over an equation with one student, and there are 30 other hands
in the air," said Mr. Wilson, the math teacher. Ms. Rosenbaum, a guidance
counselor, said: "I get here early and I bring work home every night, and I
still can't see everyone. I feel terrible giving a kid a hall pass to see me the
next day when they're crying right now."
Joseph Solanto, the principal at M.S. 45, grew up in the surrounding Belmont
neighborhood and has spent 40 years as a teacher and administrator in the
school. One morning in church, he noticed that the day's psalm, No. 96, included
a verse about how God "governs the peoples with equity."
"A school like ours," Mr. Solanto said, putting the biblical message in his own
terms, "should be able to meet the need of any child who comes through the
Taken together, the voices of M.S. 45 are the voices of experience and common
sense, commodities appreciated all too little in public education, with its
mania for the latest panacea. In their wisdom and almost heartbreaking modesty,
these voices bring to mind the story by Sholom Aleichem in which a poor man
dies, goes to heaven, and is asked by God what it is he wants, anything in the
world. The man asks for a warm roll.
THE question, what one might call the $5.6 billion question, is whether anyone
will listen to the chorus of M.S. 45. The mere fact that Mayor Bloomberg and
Chancellor Klein happen to hold office as the windfall becomes available should
not mean their proposal, commendable though much of it is, should be adopted
unaltered. Two episodes this week - the chancellor's imposition of a $5 limit on
parents' holiday gifts to teachers and the Department of Education's covert
decision to revise grades for students who took advanced courses, as reported in
The New York Sun - attest to a disturbing disconnect between the Tweed
Courthouse and the public-school constituency.
Moreover, when the court-mandated money begins to flow, some watchdog needs to
make sure it reaches the schools themselves, not the curriculum companies,
test-prep operations, teacher-coaching consultants and mini-school
entrepreneurs, all of which constitute a cast of middlemen currently in
political and pedagogical favor.
"People are deciding in big gulps how to spend the money," Mr. Solanto said. "I
hope the chancellor stays with what he says is his philosophy - that money
should go to the school level. If that happens, it'll be successful. If it's
skimmed for pet projects, then we'll all be asking who got the money and who
gets the blame."