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Chancellor Calls for More Autonomy of NYC Public Schools


New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein calls for more school autonomy and accountability at a conference at Fordham University.
Photo by Chris Taggart

New York City schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said that public schools, especially those in urban areas, face a paradox in that they need more funding to insure that all students can achieve academic success, but additional money alone “won’t get the job done.”

Speaking at the Fordham Graduate School of Education’s inaugural Fiscal Accountability Conference on March 12, Klein said that the paradox can be resolved by empowering schools to have greater discretion over budgeting while holding them accountable for improved student learning.

“Dollars will never be limitless,” Klein told the gathering of more than 100 New York City principals. “You have to make tough choices, and the choice I want you to make is to focus on ‘What is the return I’m getting in student performance for the dollars I’m investing?’ And the conceptual question I’d ask you to address is whether it’s more likely that a central bureaucracy will figure out how to make the most prudent investments for your schools or is it more likely that you, working with your teachers, with your parents, with your school community … will figure out the best way to get the returns necessary to improve student performance?”

Klein has implemented a reform initiative known as Children First, which includes the Empowerment Schools Program, an effort to give hundreds of schools more direct control over hiring, curriculum, budgets and other key functions if they meet certain performance standards. In the fall, all New York City public schools will be given more autonomy.

The daylong conference, organized by GSE’s Division of Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy, also featured a presentation by New York City Comptroller William Thompson, and panel discussions by city and state education officials and principals from throughout New York City.

Klein said that his reform initiative is driven by three core principles: improved student outcomes, greater decision-making power at the school level and fiscal equity. He said that in the United Kingdom, school reform has led to changes away from centralized control. Today, 90 cents out of every dollar, he said, goes directly to schools— not a centralized “bureaucracy.”

Some city public schools need robust youth development support, he said, while others need a greater emphasis on providing teachers with better curricula or professional development in various academic subjects. And still others might have a completely different set of needs based on the student population and faculty. Thus, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. School officials are the most knowledgeable about students and staff needs, Klein said, and should be empowered to make the tough choices that will lead to improved student learning.

Klein also said that the Department of Education has developed a new budgeting formula that will allow schools to be funded more equitably. He said that an analysis of the department’s budget found that New York City currently has two schools with about 800 students each and a similar population in terms of English-language learners and rates of poverty. One of the schools, however, receivesing between $1.5 to $2 million more in funding.

“Is that right?” he asked. “Is that fair? I don’t think so, and I think we can do better.”

The new funding formula, which he said the school system intends to adopt for the next school year, is not a Robin Hood-type plan that involves taking money from one school to give to another. The district will use discretionary money and each school will get a budget based on the needs of its students.

“I submit to you that if we are not prepared to be bold and re-conceptualize the way we do our work in public education,” Klein said, “to move from a culture that talks about inputs to one that talks about achievement for our kids, holds people accountable and gives the people closest to the challenges the opportunity to tailor their programs … to the needs of their kids, we’re going to continue to talk about what Professor Charles Payne of Duke University aptly described as ‘so much reform, so little change.’”

By Victor M. Inzunza


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