In spring 2001, a Manhattan judge declared New York State's school finance system unconstitutional and directed the state to remedy the problems. New York City schools, operating at a cost of more than $10,000 per student, spend more than the average school in forty-plus states, even allowing for the higher costs in New York City. But the judge ruled this spending inadequate to provide a sound basic education.
The situation in New York City embodies the policy dilemma confronting courts and legislatures across the country. What is required legally and morally? And, if the schools are not currently up to standards, how can the courts or legislatures remedy the situation?
The court recognized that NYC children were not performing at a high level. They drop out in high numbers; they trail much of the state in completing the requirements for the premier Regents Diploma; and they tend to have lower rates of college attendance. The court made a legal judgment (currently under appeal) that these outcomes fall below what the state constitution requires.
But what can be done? The plaintiffs linked the student outcomes directly to inadequate resources, and the judge concurred that providing more resources to the system was the obvious way to fix the situation. Everybody assiduously avoided any consideration of more fundamental change.
The taxpayers of New York City may see the wisdom of having taxpayers from other parts of the state pay more for NYC schools. And the teachers and other personnel in NYC schools may directly benefit from more money being pumped into the system. But past history suggests that the performance of students of NYC schools is unlikely to improve from simple infusions of resources.
One need only look at the results in Kansas City. A school desegregation ruling in the 1980s began a period of more than a decade when the schools had access to virtually unlimited state funds. The dreams of school personnel did not translate into any measurable gains in student performance, even as their schools moved to the very top of national spending.
It is not that resources never affect achievement. It is simply that the current incentives operating in public schools do little to promote higher achievement. Without more fundamental changes to make improved student achievement the centerpiece of rewards and punishments, little should be expected from judgments such as that in New York City. If the current lower court ruling is upheld and if the New York State legislature moves to pump more money into the existing New York City schools, only one thing is certain: the schools will cost more. Nothing provides much confidence that there will be any improvements in what motivated the case and the ruling: the low performance of NYC students.
If, on the other hand, the schools moved to rewarding teachers that produce large gains in learning or parents were given more choice in the schools their students attend, we might see improvements. And we might be able to build a relationship between increased funding and improved results.