DOE Head Says Funding Discrepancies Overblown

Photo by: Marc Fader
(File) Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Meeting with parents in East New York, Chancellor Walcott said that while the state was still shortchanging the city, inequities in city funding have been resolved.

By: Abigail Savitch-Lew

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s three celebratory announcements were also points of contention at a town hall meeting Monday for East New York’s District 19.

One, Walcott announced, the city is implementing a new teacher evaluation system that takes into account student progress on state tests, teacher observations and other school-specific metrics.

Two, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) is spending about $100 million to train school faculty to prepare for teacher evaluations and ready students for the state’s newly adopted Common Core standards.

Three, the DOE, in accordance with its goals for Fair Student Funding, is giving 10 schools in District 19 a total of $611,000 in additional funds.

But the approximately 50 school faculty, parents and community members who gathered in PS 13’s auditorium to meet Walcott still questioned whether East New York receives sufficient resources to meet the rigorous Common Core testing standards, which were introduced in elementary and middle schools this year.

"Seventeen children in my class failed," said Jamillah Salahuddin, a teacher at P.S. 202 who said that her school's math textbooks are a dozen years old and that the school lacks academic intervention services. She asked Walcott to make an exception for East New York students who were unable to pass this year’s Common Core tests, allowing them to proceed to the next grade without summer school.

"How do we expect these children with special needs who’ve been held over two or three times…to meet the Common Core standards?" she asked.

The Common Core, developed in 2009, is a set of knowledge and skills that education experts believe students must know to be ready for college and working life. By the 2014-2015 school year, 45 states and the District of Columbia will be using Common Core.   Student performance on the Common Core standardized tests has consequences for student promotion and school evaluations. The new teacher evaluation system is also based 20 to 25 percent on student test progress.

Walcott said that English Language Learners (ELL) and special education students will be held to the same rigorous standards as others, but that the DOE is committed to providing additional support to students with special needs, and especially to children who have been retained multiple times. This year the DOE will be allocating an additional $10 million to schools across the city to assist those struggling to meet the new standards, he said.

One parent doubted that different school districts receive equitable amounts of funding. "In East New York, Flatbush, Park Slope, it’s not the same," says Jasper Clarke, whose daughter attends PS 13.

Walcott said that while District 19 suffers from historical underfunding, with the implementation of Fair Student Funding, a new formula that former Chancellor Joe Klein introduced in 2007, "the funding discrepancy that people are talking about does not exist."   

Fair Student Funding is calculated per school based on a school’s total number of students as well as its number of special education, ELL and low-income students. (For grades four and up, the calculation uses academic achievement levels rather than poverty levels.). But, due to the recession and efforts to phase in the formula gradually, the DOE has still not fully implemented Fair Student Funding. Walcott says that the DOE is committed to making sure all schools receive at least 81 percent of the funding demanded by the formula. He blames inadequate state support for the DOE’s inability to meet the formula 100 percent.

(Public funding is not the only factor in disparities among schools. When PTA donations are taken into account, school budgets can vary greatly. Last year, the New York Times reported that some schools, such as Anderson on the Upper West Side, are basically “private publics,” with the PTA pulling in more than $1,600 per student. Fair Student Funding, on the other hand, generated an additional $217 per student for the average high-needs school in the 2007-2008 school year, the Times reported. )

Shamona Kirkland, vice president of the District 19 Community Education Council, said East New York students are facing many challenges outside of school, including poverty, crime and homelessness.

"I believe those stresses really directly affect their success," said Kirkland. She asked Walcott if statewide measurements of student performance took neighborhood health into account.

Walcott balked at what sounded like a demand for lower standards for the poor, but when Kirkland said she wanted more emotional and social support for students facing hardship, he agreed. He said the DOE is making new efforts to coordinate with other city agencies to provide "multiservice" support services to schools in struggling districts.