Catherine Hickey is vicar of education for the New York Catholic Archdiocese and one of the citys unsung heroes. Against all odds, she runs a school system that successfully serves thousands of the citys poor and minority families. Despite an average per-pupil expenditure of only $4,500 or so, Catholic high school graduation rates are twice as high as the citys public schools. This accomplishment is even more impressivesome would say miraculouswhen viewed against the backdrop of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that the state is facing. After a decade of litigation, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that the main reason New York Citys children werent getting a sound basic education as guaranteed by the state constitution was gross underfunding of the city schools.
Gothams education budget stood at $13.8 billion a year at the time. It is currently $15.3 billion, making for a per-pupil expenditure of nearly $15,000. Mayor Bloomberg recently testified in the remedy phase of the case that no one could expect him to provide the citys schoolchildren with a decent education for such a piddling amount. Nothing less than an extra $5.4 billion in annual aid from the statebringing the citys per-pupil spending up to $20,000would enable him to fulfill the promises of academic improvement he made when Albany gave him control of the schools.
When I told Catherine Hickey about the mayors plea of poverty, she seemed flabbergasted. An ever-increasing spending gap between the public and parochial school systems is already putting enormous pressure on the Catholic schools. As the city education budget increases, some of that money goes to increased public school teacher salaries: first-year New York City schoolteachers will soon be earning about $42,000. Thats more than what even veteran teachers make in parochial schools. To keep their teachers from leaving to work in the public system, the Catholic schools will have to boost teacher salaries, too, forcing tuition to go up and putting the squeeze on their low-income families.
Once upon a time, we would have expected Gothams conservative education reformers to rally to the aid of the Catholic schools, recognizing that a healthy parochial school system is in the citys interest. No one saw this more clearly than former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He knew that Catholic schools challenged the public school monopoly to do better, reminding us that the neediest kids are educable and that throwing more and more of the taxpayers money at the public school problem isnt the answer. He pushed for a pilot voucher program that would allow thousands of poor kids to escape their failing public schools and attend a private school of their choice. Stymied on taxpayer-funded vouchers, he then supported a private voucher program sponsored by a group of conservative New York philanthropists.
Today, though, conservative education reformers seem to be expending much of their energy cheering on Mayor Bloombergs reform agenda. This was understandable early on, when the mayor seemed to be applying the lessons that the Catholic schools taught. Notably, Bloomberg didnt complain about money. Instead, he recognized that the problem was a dysfunctional and uncompetitive system. He also promised a back-to-basics curriculum and an end to bilingual educationboth hallmarks of the Catholic school approachand a thorough reform of the teachers contract.
Now, three years into Mayor Bloombergs term, its time for conservatives to rethink their enthusiasm. True, Bloomberg deserves some kudos for his plan to open 50 charter schools (of uneven quality, though, and a drop in the bucket of a total of 1,200 schools) and for allegedly ending social promotion in the third and fifth grades. But the city schools have seen no movement on bilingual education and work-rule reforms. Worse, the city has turned classroom instruction over to a claque of progressive education ideologues who are enforcing a leftist pedagogy that endangers the worst-off kids, who most need a highly-structured pedagogical approach. Not only does Bloomberg oppose vouchers, his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, has blocked thousands of students in failing schools from exercising their right to public school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Bloombergs conservative supporters should find it particularly disappointing that he is now resorting to the not-enough-money excuse of every failed educrat. Theres no reason to believe that, without radical structural reform, the $21 billion education budget that the mayor is demanding will finally bring about significant academic gains for the students. One thing is for sure: it will put an enormous additional burden on the states perilous finances and almost certainly require new taxes.
Even more troubling is the civil rights spin that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have put on their money demands. Klein has given speeches in black churches arguing that it would violate the spirit of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision if the state failed to provide the additional $5 billion in education funding.
This is pure demagogueryand Klein knows it. As a private attorney in the 1980s, he represented the State of Missouri in one of the nations original fiscal equity lawsuits. Klein argued that pouring more money into Kansas Citys schools was not the answer to the citys education woes. The court found otherwise, but Klein turned out to be right. Twelve years and $2 billion in extra taxpayer dollars later it became clear that Missouris experiment in judge-ordered school financing was a costly failure.
In the Giuliani years, conservatives understood that the best civil rights strategy in education was not spending more and more money but instead giving poor kids trapped in failing public schools the means to transfer into private and parochial schools. With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tax-supported vouchers are constitutional, with a voucher program now underway in the nations capital, and with President Bush likely to push for more school choice, New Yorks conservatives should not be content with the crumbs Mayor Bloomberg has thrown them.