Politics & Policy

A $12.3 Billion Cautionary Tale

How not to run a school system.

The New York Police Department hosts cops from across America and around the world to explain how it successfully slashed crime. Gotham’s Board of Education should launch a similar program to show visiting administrators how not to run a school system.

Judging by its latest snafus, the Board couldn’t teach even that. The Big Apple’s government schools epitomize academic failure, fiscal excess, institutional corruption and a wall of excuses that educators erect whenever anyone demands better. With 1.1 million students, 80,000 teachers and 1,200 schools, New York, New York boasts America’s largest school system. When it comes to public education, if you can break it there, you can break it anywhere.

In last spring’s citywide tests of third, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, 57.8 percent failed reading. A stunning 69.1 percent flunked math.

The Board’s five-year, $7 billion school-construction budget is $2.8 billion in the red after just two years. Why this 40 percent overage? First, the Board double-counted $220 million as coming from both the mayor’s office and the City Council. Second, the Board’s seven members ignored a special website dedicated to construction outlays. “The modem never worked properly,” Danica Gallagher, a spokeswoman for former Board president Bill Thompson, told the New York Post’s Carl Campanile. Third, some funds just disappeared. KPMG Peat Marwick, a private accountancy, is trying to unravel this mess and recover $200 million that simply vanished.

While government schoolteachers make between $31,000 and $70,000 annually, custodians average $58,000 to $87,000. Through overtime and work at multiple campuses, the Board’s top 10 custodians each received between $117,257 and $126,887 last year. At least five custodians outearn their school principals while supervising janitors and operating boilers.

The Board employs people who shouldn’t be near kids. Psychiatrist Franklin Simon was hired to teach high school biology even though, officials say, he twice lost his medical license for propositioning patients, flashing a female physician and discharging a gun in his office.

The Board tried to terminate 322 teachers and administrators since 1997, but sacked only 23, the New York Daily News discovered. Jean Stabinsky survived, even though she yelled, “Fight! Fight!” as two of her kindergartners punched and kicked a third boy lying on the ground.

“While she let them fight for a few minutes and provoked them into continuing it,” hearing officer Howard Edelman ruled, “her actions were not so egregious as to justify her discharge.”

In one respect, New York’s schools stand at the top of the heap: segregation. “New York is the most segregated state in the nation in terms of public schools,” said Gary Orfield, author of a recent Harvard study on the topic. “It leads the pack in intense segregation of both black and Hispanic students.” This statewide phenomenon exists largely because Gotham’s whites have flocked to private and suburban schools and left non-whites behind in less racially diverse classrooms.

Not even New York’s no-nonsense mayor has tamed this city’s schools. Like an octopus squirting ink at a predator, the Board has escaped Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to wrap his arms around it. He has advocated vouchers, higher standards and accountability. The recalcitrant Board has eluded his every advance.

Of course, this tragicomedy’s victims are the students, many of them lower-income, minority kids with limited life chances. Challenging their minds would lift them from the streets. Instead, government schools leave them intellectually stunted, often for life. That seems the Board’s last concern, however. “Up with people?” Try “Up with budgets, payrolls and union contracts.”

Why can’t kids learn? “It’s not working because there’s not enough money,” Schools Chancellor Harold Levy recently bellowed. He lamented the Board’s $12.3 billion “shoestring” budget. The money never is enough for educrats like Levy, whose children attend the elite, private Dalton School. In fiscal year 2000, New York spent $9,739 per pupil. That financed an on-time high school graduation rate of 49.9 percent of seniors, of whom 62.6 percent entered college. Fully 19.3 percent of the Class of 2000 dropped out altogether.

In contrast, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York (covering Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too) graduated 98 percent of its 12th graders on time, 89 percent of whom then attended college. Fewer than 1 percent dropped out. Per-pupil cost: $5,500 for secondary and $3,200 for primary schools.

While New York’s Board of Education teaches its students very little, it clearly offers one lesson to any outsider willing to listen: Don’t try this at home.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.


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