A False Schools ‘Fix’

Eric A. Hanushek
Published Date
New York Post
June 30, 2003 -- THE state of schooling in New York City returned to the news Thursday with the highest court coming down on the side that the city's schools fail to meet constitutional requirements. The court has now turned the spotlight back on the state Legislature to "fix things." Court decisions on school-finance issues are always expected to be a mixture of constitutional arguments, public-policy views and political cross-currents. And this decision does not disappoint. A substantial amount of attention is devoted to what is a "sound, basic education," the constitutional standard in New York state. The Appellate Court had previously declared that an 8th-grade education was sufficient for meeting this standard - a position that most thoughtful people would reject. The high court, rightly in my opinion, rejects that standard as inappropriate for today's labor market and involvement as a citizen. The replacement is one of an "appropriate high school education." But here things start unraveling. What can the court do to define the standard? To ensure that it is achieved? And to avoid having the courts constantly hearing new challenges to educational policy? The court attempts to walk a tightrope that effectively sets new policy but that does not go beyond either its powers or its ability to monitor the results. Unfortunately, it probably will not make it to the other side without falling into the quagmire of conflicting views on educational policy and educational decision making. The centerpiece of its remedy is a ruling that the legislature should provide funding sufficient to provide an "adequate education" for the specific children of New York City. This sensible sounding remedy is unlikely to solve the city's education problems and is unlikely to lead to legal peace on the matter. Gotham's schools today outspend the vast majority of all schools in the nation, including almost all of the large city school systems. Some spending reflects cost differences, but this can in no way erase the large differentials that exist. The court argues that such evidence is irrelevant, because New York state has an absolute requirement of a sound, basic education and not a relative requirement compared to other states. But surely the court does recognize that the choice of how much education to provide is a political-policy decision, just as is the decision about how much Medicaid, how much welfare, how much crime prevention should be provided. In years of budget deficits, the court is clearly aware that the education standard relates to choices on taxes, private consumption, and the like. The court simply cannot deny that it is deeply immersed in the policy debates of the state. Nonetheless, the fundamental problem, essentially acknowledged by the court, is that there is little reason to believe that additional funding alone will lead to appropriate educational outcomes. All past experience shows that commonly measured inputs to education are at best loosely related to outcomes. Read backwards, the evidence says that funding will not solve problems of poor uses of resources, of lack of appropriate incentives for schools, and of imprecise knowledge of how best to provide education for educationally disadvantaged children. And, because of this basic disconnect of a causal link between resources and outcomes, it is simply not possible to define what is adequate funding. The Legislature's response will almost surely be to commission an "adequacy study." This will give the Legislature cover from the court decision, but it will not truly solve either the legal or the policy dilemmas that it faces. To be sure, recent changes may help dramatically. As the court notes - while arguing that it cannot pay any attention - the altered governance of city schools with the new energy created is a good sign. So is the movement toward better accountability that is contained in No Child Left Behind, the federal law driving much of the current actions of states and districts. The improvements started with these, while still uncertain, may bail the court out on the policy side by putting in place a course of improvement. But even then, it is far from clear that New York courts will avoid the three decades of school-finance cases found next door in New Jersey. The court has opened itself up to an "adequacy" standard that will be the subject of dispute even if the schools in New York City undergo dramatic improvements. — Eric Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution New York Post A False Schools "Fix" June 30, 2003