Manhattan City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz is fast becoming the skeptic who threatens New York’s education orthodoxy. Her latest challenge to that orthodoxy is to ask what she calls the “$20 billion question”: “How can we spend that much on our schools [each year] and still not have the money for things so basic as science labs or toilet paper . . . . [A]re we getting good value for our money?”
To ask such a question is heretical. The New York education establishment’s answer to the schools’ woes is: No questions, more money. Any attempt to scrutinize dollars already spent, in its view, threatens the quest for future dollars.
The four Dem candidates for mayor have spent the spring falling all over one another proposing spending hikes for schools. Not that Mayor Bloomberg has been much better: after wresting control of the schools from unaccountable local school boards, the businessman mayor never bothered to cast a cold eye on the city’s massive education budget. His ongoing strategy has been to beg Albany for more money.
And since a state court ruled nearly two years ago in the decade-old Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit that Albany must indeed start sending fresh billions to Gotham’s schools each year, the anticipation of all that cash has become a new fixation—and a new excuse—for the educrats who manage and staff the schools.
But now along comes Moskowitz—who’s also a candidate for Manhattan borough president—to do just what Bloomberg should have done his first year in office. Moskowitz has just released a slim booklet called “The Education Budget for Dummies” to tell parents, taxpayers, and voters what Bloomberg and the Dems who want his job won’t tell them.
First, the councilwoman kills the notion that the anticipated CFE windfall is free money. “CFE means spending billions of our own money,” she correctly writes—since 40 percent of state tax dollars come from city residents. But what about new money from Washington, then—for which the Dems are always agitating? “City residents and businesses fund . . . Washington, so it’s partly our own money that we’re getting back,” she retorts.
But more to the point: “Over the past five years, [New York’s education] budget has increased by about $4.5 billion, or 50 percent,” Moskowitz writes. “Clearly, the quality of public education has not improved as much. The question is, why not? Are we spending on the wrong things?”
To find out, Moskowitz studied the dozens of documents and hundreds of pages that make up the schools’ budget. Moskowitz points out that just about half of Gotham’s $13 billion operating budget for schools ever makes it into the classroom—a whopping $7 billion goes for things like administration, transportation, and safety. Plus, there’s a “hidden budget”: another $2 billion gets spent on teacher pensions, and nearly $1 billion on interest costs on debt. “Twenty-two cents on every education dollar goes toward pensions, benefits and interest,” Moskowitz notes. “These non-classroom costs are growing exponentially with no end in sight.” Everyone knows this—but the Democratic mayoral candidates say nothing. Why? The union, bewailing teachers’ supposedly low pay, doesn’t want to call attention to their opulent pension and benefits, so Dems hoping for an endorsement won’t bring it up.
Gotham could also slash interest costs on debt by paying for more school construction upfront each year. But that would mean cutting back some other part of the city budget, like Medicaid. All mayors want credit for capital spending but prefer to kick the bill to some future mayor.
Moskowitz also lays out some worthy management options as the city prepares to spend yet more money on accomplishing its long-standing goal of reducing class sizes. Right now, a principal gets a certain number of teachers per school enrollment, and their average salaries must equal the average salaries for that school. Perhaps, Moskowitz notes, the salaries should be based on the system-wide, rather than the school-wide, average, so that bad schools are not perpetually fated to have low-paid—and therefore probably inexperienced—teachers. “Leaving the principal to recruit the best teachers . . . [would] send a positive message to everyone,” the councilwoman writes.
Well, except to the teachers’ union—because this question will inevitably breed more dangerous questions. Here's one (not asked by Moskowitz—yet): If it's a good idea to give principals a pot of money proportional to enrollment to recruit senior, better-paid teachers from other schools, why not give them full discretion to recruit based on quality, not quantity—and let them attract the best teachers with higher salaries or bonuses?
For a group of 80 middle-school students, would three top-flight, well-paid science teachers who can engage 26 students in a classroom with the help of an extra teachers’ aide work better than four mediocre, average-paid teachers with 20 students each? Would more security in some schools, and immediate disciplinary action against unruly students, do more to improve teachers’ control of classrooms, rather than just cutting class size?
Three years into mayoral control of city schools, Moskowitz’s budget analysis shows that the mayor hasn’t asked these kind of tough questions. The budget doesn’t even track how much money the schools spend on science or math each year, so parents and taxpayers don’t know if the higher spending is reaching the classroom or if the heating bill just went up.
This isn’t simply a quest for better accounting. A clear budget that tracks dollars going in, in relation to test scores and grade-promotion rates that track results coming out, are the only way for taxpayers to learn whether those running the schools are doing their jobs.