When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over direct management of New York City’s public schools in June 2002, he made a solemn promise. The new institution of mayoral control, he said, would give him the power simultaneously to raise student achievement and to rein in a notoriously inefficient and money-wasting school system. In fact, in his January 2003 speech unveiling the Children First reforms, the mayor seemed to suggest that the $12 billion then going to the schools was sufficient to bring about academic improvement. That’s because his administration was now going to “make sure we get the most value for the school system’s dollar.” Five years later, we have an unambiguous—and unimpeachable—data set on the schools that allows us to assess whether the mayor’s promise to deliver a much bigger education bang for the taxpayers’ buck has been fulfilled.
First, let’s examine the dollar side of the equation. The fiscal year 2003 revenue budget for the schools, Mayor Bloomberg’s first, was $12.5 billion, including pension costs and debt service. About $1.2 billion of this total came from federal education funds, another $5.6 billion from the state, and $5.6 billion from direct city contributions. Private funding contributed another $100 million. The current fiscal year 2008 budget, including pension and debt service, stands at $19.7 billion. This represents an increase of $7 billion, or more than 50 percent, in total education spending in five years. But this huge boost didn’t come equally from the three sources of school funding. The increased federal contribution during that period has been only $700 million, or 35 percent more. State aid is up by $2.3 billion, or about 41 percent. But the increase in direct city education spending during the Bloomberg administration is a spectacular $4.3 billion, or 76 percent—by far the biggest surge in school spending in the city’s history, and likely the largest increase of any school district in the country.
And now, with the release of the 2007 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) of the federal government’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), we have the most complete and accurate picture of how much academic improvement that extra $7 billion has bought for New York City’s schools. The answer is remarkably little. Every two years, the NAEP tests a sample of each state’s fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading proficiency; the TUDA portion of those tests compares outcomes in 11 of the nation’s large urban school districts. There is an almost unanimous consensus among education evaluators and researchers that the results of the NAEP tests, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” provide the most reliable comparison of student academic achievement among the states and among urban districts, as well as of the degree of student improvement within particular states or districts.
New York City’s best performance in 2007 was in fourth-grade math. Gotham students joined two other districts (Boston and the District of Columbia) in seeing significant and steady improvements from 2003 to 2005, and again from 2005 to 2007. Further, low-income and minority city students did better than their peers in other districts.
In eighth-grade math, however, New York was the only one of the 11 districts that remained flat from the 2003 to the 2007 tests. And that was true for every ethnic and racial subgroup in the city. According to the NAEP summary, for New York eighth-graders in 2007, there was “no significant change in the average scores for White, Black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students compared to 2003 and 2005.”
The fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests were even more discouraging for the city. There was no significant change in reading proficiency for fourth-graders from 2003 to 2007. And reading scores were actually down in the eighth grade. The average scale score for our students went from 252 in 2003 to 249 in 2007.
These results may surprise people who have heard so much over the past five years from the Bloomberg administration and some of the media about New York City’s “historic” gains on the state’s math and reading tests. But the NAEP doesn’t lie; it measures achievement far more accurately than state tests do. No doubt the administration will put the best face on the latest test data. But the reality is that $7 billion in extra education spending has so far produced only pennies’ worth of academic improvement in most grades.
The sooner the city faces up to the bottom line, the sooner we can start speaking honestly about how to remedy the situation.