Eliot Spitzer To Unveil Education Plan, Demand Audit Of Standardized Testing

08/28/2013 07:32 am ET
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NEW YORK -- Two weeks before the New York City primary, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) plans to wade into the complicated world of education policy.

According to a policy memo obtained by The Huffington Post, Spitzer, who is running for city comptroller, plans to propose auditing how the city spends money on testing and test preparation, and he wants to encourage contract negotiations that include salary increases with the United Federation of Teachers, among other things.

Spitzer is running against Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a fellow Democrat. In New York, the comptroller oversees pension funds, investigates financial and contract-related issues, and can advise the mayor on fiscal management.

Spitzer will present his education platform at an 11 a.m. Wednesday press conference in front of I.S. 296, a Brooklyn public school. "As Governor, I fought to get New York City students and schools their fair share for the first time, and as Comptroller I will keep fighting to make sure the dollars we get are spent wisely every time," Spitzer said in a statement.

Though Spitzer representatives declined to detail his views on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education policies, some of his proposals suggest an implicit critique of the current administration. Spitzer will call for encouraging "competitive bidding for goods and services," according to the memo, while Bloomberg's Department of Education has been criticized for awarding too many no-bid contracts.

"These are veiled criticisms of the Bloomberg administration, which relied on non-competitive processes to make awards," said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Other proposals, such as a promise to "facilitate fair contract negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers," seem calibrated to temper attacks from labor. Earlier this summer, labor groups united to form two political action committees to help Stringer beat Spitzer, and reportedly UFT President Michael Mulgrew personally pressured a political consulting firm to drop Spitzer as a client. With Stringer trailing Spitzer by 18 points, according to HuffPost Pollster, the education policy announcement -- one specifically related to union friendly issues, such as concerns about standardized testing -- may be an effort to prevent the UFT and its affiliates from pumping millions into anti-Spitzer advertisements.

The Spitzer memo begins with a bold claim about school funding, one the former governor has articulated in debates.

"As governor, Eliot presided over the largest increase in educational funding in state history," the memo asserts. "In Eliot’s first budget as governor, shares were 'broken' for the first time in order to reallocate school funding according to need.  As a result, NYC schools saw an increase of $712 million in funding in the 2007 – 2008 budget."

That claim is true, according to lawyer Michael Rebell, who oversaw the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a landmark lawsuit that won billions in school funding for New York. Although Rebell prefers Stringer on other issues, he said Spitzer "couldn't have been better" on school funding. "And I rarely say that about politicians," he said.

During his first term as governor, Spitzer pushed for the implementation of the lawsuit decision, and as a result, the Legislature passed a package that was supposed to give New York City $5.63 billion in additional school funding, Rebell said. ($2 billion came through before Spitzer left office due to a prostitution scandal, and recession-related budget cuts eroded the rest.)

According to the memo, Spitzer will "push for equitable distribution of school funding" because "the resources available to schools in NYC's wealthiest neighborhoods far exceed those available to the schools in the poorest neighborhoods."

Spitzer's proposed testing audit follows a recent steep decline in standardized test scores due to the implementation of higher learning goals. His audit would examine vendor data, sources say, and would work with the New York State comptroller to make sure the city's spending on testing is not disproportionate to other districts.

As a remedy to childhood obesity, Spitzer also wants to enforce the legal requirement that students spend 120 minutes a week in physical education.

But experts said it would be hard to accomplish all this from the comptroller's office, a position for overseeing financial well-being. Current Comptroller John Liu -- also a Democratic mayoral candidate -- used his office to audit specific components of education in New York City. Last month, a Liu audit found that the city Department of Education's database for special education students is so riddled with errors that the DoE had missed millions in payments as a result. Pallas interpreted Liu's education-related initiatives as a way to prime his mayoral candidacy, an opportunity to "be seen as someone who is looking out for the interests of school children."

And it's unclear whether Liu's audits had a tangible impact on education in New York, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY graduate center and Brooklyn College. "I don't know of one education program that has been substantially delayed or changed as a result of Liu as comptroller."

So he has his doubts about the feasibility of actually implementing Spitzer's proposals. "Audits are a financial shield and should not be used as a policy sword," Bloomfield said.

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