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SUNY - New Paltz RTTT Report: New York State of Mind (Not So Much)

By Charles Barone, DFER Director of Federal Policy and Omar Lopez, DFER Policy Analyst

Last week, SUNY-New Paltz issued a paper authored by Kenneth Mitchell, Superintendent of the South Orangetown school district and head of the Lower Hudson Council of Superintendents. The paper’s major claim is that New York's Race to the Top funding would cost districts millions in unfunded mandates and would therefore not be worth implementing. After closely reading the report, we’ve found that though it is cleverly worded, it is also fundamentally misleading.

First and foremost, no district is required to take Race to the Top (RttT) funding. Any district that thinks the advantages of accepting the funding are outweighed by disadvantages can decline the money and, along with it, any of RttT's specific requirements. So talk of an RttT "mandate," a word that appears 25 times in the paper, is nonsense.

For purposes of comparison, the term "achievement gap" appears in the report once, and somewhat glibly at that. Terms like “equity” or “disadvantaged” do not appear at all. This disparity - between the interests of a fairly privileged group of school administrators and the majority of New York State students who are most in need of RttT's fundamental reforms - turns out to be pretty thematic of the overall report.

Not that the author doesn't do his best to whitewash such distinctions. Opening headlines of the report in big font imply that its findings extend to New York State as a whole. Results from Rockland and Westchester Counties are first cited as “examples.” After a closer read, however, it becomes clear that the findings of the report are only from these two counties. As such, the implied generalizability of the findings presented here to all districts in the state is entirely bogus. For most of the districts encompassed by the report, one could say giving the money back to less privileged New York communities would be not only prudent but darn right principled.

Let's take a look at the South Orangetown District where Mitchell is Superintendent. Per-pupil spending is $18,574, more than $2,000 above the state average of $16,387. Multiplied by more than 3,400 district students, that's about an extra $7 million per year. If we were South Orangetown partisans, we’d be grateful for this advantage and keep our mouths shut about resource problems.

The district is also, not surprisingly, fairly homogeneous and wildly different demographically from the Empire State as a whole. Seven percent of the students in South Orangetown are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch; the state average is 44%. Black students make up 2% of all district students compared to a state average of 19%; Hispanic students make up 7% of students, one third of the state average of 21%.

The district is no slacker on achievement either. One hundred percent of high school students pass the NY Regents English Exam. Ninety-three percent pass the Regents integrated algebra exam, compared to a state average of 73%. The graduation rate in the district is 96%. To put that in context, there are 110 NY high schools dubbed "drop-out factories" by researchers at Johns Hopkins because they have graduation rates of 60% or less.

South Orangetown is not without its problems. While 66% of all 3rd Grade students score proficient or above in English Language Arts, only 41% of economically disadvantaged students do. In math, the gap is even wider: 73% of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced-price lunch score proficient or above; the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students score below proficient.

Note to Superintendent Mitchell: you may want to visit schools like the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem, where 77% of students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, yet 94% of elementary school students score at or above proficient on the math exam and 78% do so on English Language Arts. Surely South Orangetown could do at least as well with its 7% of economically disadvantaged students?

The report is chock full of other gems. Our favorite is the large font pull-quote from Scarsdale Superintendent Mike McGill claiming that New York’s state teacher evaluation system "diverts resources (time, money and energy) from our efforts to meet high global standards for the new century.” School spending in Scarsdale is $24,000 per student, putting it at about 1/3rd higher than the average New York district,; moreover, there are twelve Westchester county school districts that have even higher per-pupil funding.

Half of Scarsdale High School students are admitted to the nation’s top colleges and universities. Everyone else goes to college somewhere else. The high school can afford to hire Ivy League professors to design its global standards, as it did in 2008, because most of its students already top-out on tests of basic skills. Again, like South Orangetown, the best option for Scarsdale based both on its own financial considerations and principles of social conscience would be to turn back the RttT money and let it flow to districts, schools, and students that are in much dire need.

Let's be clear: we are not begrudging in anyway whatsoever well-funded and high-achieving school districts such as South Orangetown and Scarsdale for their good fortune and success. But portraying RttT as a mandate is, to put it nicely, intellectually dishonest and shameful. And when it comes to financial resources and hardship, we've got the world's smallest violin and it's playing just for you.

Prior to joining DFER in early 2009, Charles Barone spent five years working as an independent consultant on education policy issues. His clients included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, Education Trust, and the National Academies of Sciences. In 2007, Barone authored the DFER briefing "Keeping Achievement Relevant: The Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind." Read his full bio here.

Omar Lopez has been in the struggle to reform the public education system since being part of the first graduating class of Beginning with Children Charter School in Brooklyn, New York. Before joining DFER his background was in teaching English Language Arts in New York City Public Schools at the 5th, 9th and 11th grade level. Read more about Omar here.