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December 6, 2004

Governor Dean: Without accountability, more dollars won't improve schools

Money is not the most important predictor of school success, and injecting billions of new dollars into New York City schools will not help without greater accountability, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean told an education-finance conference.

“It’s not just about money,” Governor Dean said of efforts to improve struggling schools in New York and elsewhere. Referring to court orders for more school spending in New York City, he added: “If there’s no accountability then you might as well not do this.”

The former governor and presidential candidate was keynote speaker at a conference held Thursday and Friday by the Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City-based think tank, to examine issues surrounding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit over funding of New York City schools.

Governor Dean expressed support for a $5.6 billion increase in taxpayer funding for the city’s schools, as proposed by court-appointed judicial referees.

“But,” he told the conference, “no amount of money is going to fix this fact: that the single most important predictor of whether a child does well in school or not is not how much money you spend, or the computers and the teachers and all that. It’s the message they get at home from the parents about education.”

Parental involvement, strong leadership from school principals, and a requirement that struggling school districts study successful efforts elsewhere are all essential to school improvement, Governor Dean said.

He told of a small, working-class school district in his state that instituted a program of full-school reading periods every day. The effort was so successful in improving reading skills that other districts now use the same method.

“Some districts will do a terrible job,” Governor Dean said, “but some districts will be outstanding. If you require one to at least take a look at what the other’s doing, that, I think, is the path to excellence.”

The state Court of Appeals ruled in July 2003 that state leaders must ensure more funding for New York City schools, to improve educational quality for city students. The high court also required "a system of accountability to measure whether the (funding) reforms actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education." But the judicial referees who made their funding proposal to a lower court in late November included no requirement for new accountability measures.

At the conference, numerous other speakers echoed the call for stronger accountability measures – including Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

“I don’t want to come back 10 years from now, and find that billions of new dollars have been put into the city schools and there’s been no change,” Rebell said.

Martin West, an education researcher at Harvard University, said per-pupil spending in the United States rose from $3,300 to $9,000, after adjusting for inflation, from 1960 to 2002. Student achievement “hardly budged” despite that increase, and by some measures grew worse, he said.

Pointing out that New York spends more per pupil than any other state, West said: “If money were the only problem, we would have solved it a long time ago.”

James R. Tallon, a member of the state Board of Regents, agreed with the calls for strong accountability while observing that New York State’s existing accountability system is among the strongest in the country.

“You have far better accountability in the educational system of the state than you do in the $42 billion Medicaid system,” said Tallon, who also serves president of the United Hospital Fund, a health-care research organization. “It is not even a close call.”

Raymond Horton, a Columbia University business professor who has studied New York City finances for several decades, said even major spending increases “won't mean a thing in terms of providing better education unless teacher productivity is increased.”

Robin Brown, president of the United Parents Associations of New York City, called for using some of the expected new school funding to study “where students were when they started and where they ended up.”