Those who have ever wanted to share their views on how schools are funded in New York state - and by how much - have an unprecedented opportunity to do so. The unique chance to actually change the convoluted, highly political system that has burdened taxpayers and hamstrung elected officials and policy-makers for generations must be taken advantage of.
As part of a year-long "costing out" study, a coalition of public-education advocates are inviting "stakeholders" in the current system to give detailed input to assessing the actual expenses, on a district-by-district basis, of educating students. It is a complex process. And it is an admirable one, because it is determined to engage the public as a way to ensure success.
The key question being weighed: "What does it actually cost to provide the resources that each school needs to provide all of its students a fair and reasonable opportunity to meet achievement levels specified by New York's Board of Regents standards and the federal No Child Left Behind Act?"
It is a carefully worded question: "Each school" means it is important to recognize the different challenges faced by schools in urban, rural and suburban districts. "All of its students" means just that - not just those students fortunate enough to live in wealthy districts that can supply a tax base sufficient to pay teachers well, handle changing academic needs and weather unpredictable amounts of state aid. "Fair and reasonable" means an appropriate education, not a so-called "Cadillac" one. In fact, it is very possible the study will identify savings in what districts currently spend.
Finally, "achievement levels" are those identified by the state and federal governments as meeting academic standards sufficient to graduate skilled, employable, civically involved students - with no gap in student performance by minority and disadvantaged students.
In all, a tall order. And a needed one. For too long, too many New York students have not been afforded the public education that the state constitution mandates.
That is the basis of a legal challenge by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to the state's school-financing system, which the advocacy group claims has denied a sound basic education to New York students, especially those in New York City. The lawsuit has made its way through the courts for a decade. The state's highest court is expected to rule on the case early this summer.
In response to a "threshold task" ordered by a state Supreme Court judge in 2001, CFE has taken up the challenge of determining the cost of a sound basic education. It is supported by the state School Boards Association and more than 30 other organizations from throughout the state. "Costing Out: A New York Adequacy Study" is being led by an independent panel of national experts. From March through May, 12 forums are being held in local communities to get public input on what schools really need to succeed.
At a Westchester forum Wednesday night, organizers noted that while costing studies have been done in a handful of other states, only New York's has been this ambitious.
In addition to getting the public's input at this stage and later, after a draft report is prepared, several strategies will be combined to arrive at conclusions: using academic standards, statistics and research, studying known successful schools and involving professional panels.
Significantly, those panels will weigh the needs of diverse districts: small cities like White Plains and Peekskill, large urban ones like Mount Vernon and Yonkers, suburban and rural ones like those in northern Westchester, Putnam and Rockland.
And unlike any other study done, New York's will identify expenses, programs and practices for special-education students and English-language learners. That has enormous consequences for districts in this diverse region.
We urge the public, local educators and elected officials to contact CFE and NYSSBA to review the background materials and guide for this important costing-out study - and respond.
Even as districts and the state face current funding limitations, it would be irresponsible not to invest time in this "public engagement" process. In fact, never has it been more vital for the critical years and decades ahead.
Those who don't get involved in reform won't be able to fairly say any more, "Nobody asked me."
To be heard, to voice views on the challenges, and solutions, to reform the current system of public education funding in New York, contact either of the following two lead advocacy organizations of The Council on Costing Out:
* Campaign for Fiscal Equity, 6 E. 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10017. Phone: (212) 867-8455. Fax: (212) 867-8460. Web: www.cfequity.org
* New York State School Boards Association, 24 Century Hill Drive, Latham, N.Y. 12110. Phone: (518) 783-0200. Fax: (518) 783-0211. Web: www.nyssba.org.