A Letter to Chancellor Joel Klein


The future of New York belongs to its children. —Governor George Pataki, WNYC, October 9

Public education is each and every American’s birthright. —Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, The Newshour With Jim Lehrer, PBS, September 30

New York tops the list of states with the largest per student gap between funds available to the wealthiest and the poorest districts.The New York Times, October 2

Dear Chancellor Klein:

By way of introduction, I have been reporting on this city’s public schools’ chancellors for the Voice and, for a time, The New Yorker, since Harvey Scribner took office in 1970. He was driven out of town by the United Federation of Teachers, as, later, Ramon Cortines was by Rudy Giuliani. You appear to be considerably more sure-footed. My books on the school system’s successes by teachers and principals include Our Children Are Dying (Viking Press) and Does Anybody Give a Damn? Nat Hentoff on Education (Knopf).

I learned the most from Scribner, Frank Macchiarola, Cortines (whose work I knew from before he came here), and especially from Anthony Alvarado. I was impressed that before you took office, you went to San Diego, where Tony is again proving that public schools can work, as he did here in East Harlem, as chancellor, and later, in District 2.

I am puzzled, however, by your failure in the weeks since to vigorously and persistently comment on the greatest danger to this city’s public school students—the June 26 decision by the Appellate Division of New York State’s Supreme Court that the state “is obliged to provide no more than a middle-school-level education.” That means an eighth-grade education. As your predecessor, Harold Levy, said publicly: “The constitutional standard cannot be that children are entitled to be menial laborers.”

As you know, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity is appealing that Oliver Twist–like decision to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. I expect that court’s judges would be interested in hearing the views of the city’s chancellor on the constitutional standard for equitable financing of the state’s and city’s public schools.

Governor Pataki initially declared that he “was pleased” by the Appellate Division’s decision setting an eighth-grade standard for what public school students have to learn. He distanced himself from that ruling after Carl McCall continually reminded the governor of his pleasure at the consequences of that decision. Justice David Saxe said in sardonic dissent on June 26 that “logically, [the state] has no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all.”

I am surprised that Carl McCall has not, throughout his campaign, called attention to Pataki’s main witness in the testimony before the Appellate Division. As only Wayne Barrett reported in detail, (Voice, August 13), sociologist David Armor told the justices that “the amount of expenditures provided . . . does not appear to benefit student performance” when you take into account “the socioeconomic conditions facing certain students.” (Emphasis added.)

After all, said Pataki’s expert, who clearly helped shape the court’s destructive decision, “black families have many single-parent households,” and so “there’s going to be a difference in achievement.”

By endorsing George Pataki, the United Federation of Teachers has betrayed the credibility of its members among students and parents in poor and low-income families of all colors throughout the state. The UFT’s choice, Pataki, paid taxpayer funds to hire David Armor to provide the kind of “expert” testimony that Thurgood Marshall had to deal with in the lower courts for years before he won Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Although Pataki has now come to the conclusion that an eighth-grade education is not enough, even for “certain students,” he has not moved to tell the Court of Appeals to dismiss the case and end Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. The State of New York.

Are you, Chancellor Klein, going to ask the governor to back off entirely?

Pataki is not only going ahead with the cases, but remains steadfast in his conviction that the legislature—not the courts—must decide how to finance and interpret what the New York State Constitution requires for all children: “the opportunity of a basic sound education.”

Do you, Chancellor Klein, believe that this state’s legislature, or any legislature, or any governor should have the final authority to decide the future of public school students? Do you agree with Pataki that educational resources must depend on the shifting political deals betweens governors and the few legislators who actually make the final decisions? Wayne Barrett can tell you all about that.

There are states in which this vital question is decided by state courts interpreting state constitutions. Unless New York State’s Court of Appeals also comes to that constitutional conclusion, the rising dropout rates in this city’s public schools will accelerate.

By contrast, the New Hampshire Supreme Court (Claremont School District v. State of New Hampshire) has ruled:

“Given the complexities of our society today, the state’s constitutional duty extends beyond mere reading, writing and arithmetic. It also includes broad educational opportunities needed in today’s society to prepare citizens for their roles as participants and potential competitors in today’s marketplace of ideas.” (Emphasis added.)

And the Kentucky Supreme Court (Rose v. Council for Better Education) has told the state’s taxpayers that the delegates to the 1891 state constitutional convention intended to ensure that “the boys of the humble mountain home stand equally high with those from the mansions of the city. There are no distinctions in common schools, but all stand upon one level.”

Chancellor Klein, as you get into this city’s schools, you will inescapably have detailed knowledge of the distinctive inequalities in the purported common schools of New York. In subsequent columns, I will have other questions about why more and more children are being left behind. But on this appeal by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, your voice must be loud and clear enough for the Court of Appeals to hear.

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