How to Spend $5.6 Billion? Heed Those in the Classrooms
New York Times
December 15, 2004

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 door."

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."