January 11, 2001
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The lead news story in today's New York Times is about a decision by a state judge to order the state to spend about a billion dollars a year more on New York City's school system. The Times devotes a tremendous amount of space to the decision, printing a lead editorial on the topic, a "Metro Matters" column, a news analysis, a profile of the judge, a profile of the plaintiff, excerpts from the ruling, and two articles about reactions to the decision -- in addition to the front-page news article.
The general tone of the coverage is summarized by the Times editorial, which begins, "In a strong and welcome decision yesterday, State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse of Manhattan rightly blamed the state's inequitable allocation of education money for the 'parlous state' of New York City's schools. The state formulas, which have shortchanged the city for decades, deprive city students of the 'sound, basic education' guaranteed by New York State's Constitution, Justice DeGrasse ruled in a carefully argued decision. He also decreed that the state's deficient funding system violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by causing an adverse and disparate impact on minority students, over 70 percent of whom live in New York City."
The "Metro Matters" column notes in seeming approval that the judge "rejects outright the idea that the city has enough money for education if it doesn't waste or misspend it."
The Times, and Judge DeGrasse, make much of the fact that New York City schools get less in state aid per student than some other upstate cities. And they make much of the fact that the New York City Board of Education spends less per student than some wealthy New York suburbs spend.
But for all the acres of newsprint the Times devotes to this story this morning, there just didn't seem to be room in the newspaper's coverage for some of the relevant facts. You'd search in vain in today's Times, for instance, for the fact that, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, "New York City spending per pupil is 17 percent above the national average." You'd search in vain to find out exactly how much money the New York schools do spend per student. The closest the Times comes is a sentence in the news analysis saying, "the city now pays about $4,500 per student, and the state kicks in about the same." The Times analysis immediately puts this in perspective: "In Westchester County, however, property owners pay more than $11,000 per student, while the state gives only about $2,000."
Fair enough. But what if, say, instead of comparing the New York City per-pupil expenditure only to that in wealthy suburban Westchester, the Times compared it to the expenditures in another large urban school district with many students who are poor or children of immigrants. Say, the school district in Houston, Texas.
To be sure, these comparisons are inexact. You have to watch out for accounting gimmickry involving capital expenditures. And there are differences in the costs of living in the two cities.
Nevertheless, according to the New York City Board of Education, New York City's schools spent $8,957 per pupil in 1998-1999. And, according to the Houston Independent School District, Houston's schools spent $5,672 per pupil in 1999-2000.
Yet while the state of the New York schools is, by the admission of the Times and the judge, "parlous," the Houston schools are widely heralded as a success, and their top executive, Roderick Paige, is about to be confirmed with bipartisan acclamation as the Bush administration's secretary of education. A New York Times article today about Mr. Paige's confirmation hearing reports, "Under his supervision, Houston schools have recruited quality teachers, reduced violence and improved reading scores."
How did Mr. Paige manage to achieve these gains? Was it by the New York Times-Judge DeGrasse method of blaming the previous failures on a racist lack of funding and by attempting to remedy the failure by pouring more money into a failing system? No. The news article in today's Times about Mr. Paige's confirmation hearing reports that the Houston achievements were made "in part by tying teacher salaries to gains in student performance."
How about that. Funny how the news from Houston doesn't seem to have penetrated the Times coverage of the court decision about the New York City schools.
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