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Mysterious bonus makes rich schools richer, critics say

An extra $1,000 per pupil goes to 13 selective New York City high schools

When New York City officials revamped the way public schools were funded more than a decade ago, they emphasized one goal above the others: Making school spending more equitable in the nation’s largest system.

They also included a provision that critics say is doing just the opposite: an annual bonus of almost $1,000 per student at 13 of the city’s elite high schools, where students are wealthier than the city average and alumni foundations can raise millions of dollars for extras.

Summer camp students at Forest Hills High School in Queens, one of the city's most crowded schools, with almost 4,000 students. Principal Ben Sherman says the bonus for specialized academic schools puts schools like his at a disadvantage in a competitive admissions process.

Summer camp students at Forest Hills High School in Queens, one of the city’s most crowded schools, with almost 4,000 students. Principal Ben Sherman says the bonus for specialized academic schools puts schools like his at a disadvantage in a competitive admissions process.

That means that students at these schools — where only 15 percent of students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent citywide — are getting almost $18 million more this year than they would have without the bonus, according to Department of Education data. Since 2012, when the department began publishing complete information on how schools are funded, the group of 13 schools has received more than $100 million from the bonus.

That group includes the city’s eight exam-based specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech, where admission is based on a single, three-hour multiple-choice test known as the SHSAT.

It also includes two highly competitive early college high schools, Bard Manhattan and Bard Queens, and two newer schools, Millennium Brooklyn and the NYC iSchool, both of which screen students based on middle school grades and test scores. Townsend Harris in Queens, which has its own competitive screening process, also gets the targeted bonus.

Critics worry that the bonus exacerbates inequality by giving the city’s most exclusive high schools a financial boost unavailable to most schools in the city.

“Students that have made their way into the specialized high schools have largely done so as a result of advantages their families have been able to give to them already,” said Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy at the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group that joined a legal complaint filed by the NAACP in 2012 challenging the SHSAT as discriminatory (the complaint is still pending with the federal Department of Education).

“They don’t need even more additional resources from the DOE at this point,” he said.

But many educators and parents defend the additional money for the schools, saying that even they are vastly underfunded and have trouble meeting higher academic demands.

“Too often in this country, we’re sticking to the middle and mediocrity,” said Elissa Stein, a former PTA co-president at Brooklyn Tech, the Fort Greene specialized high school with more than 5,500 students, who now runs an advisory service for public school parents. “But I also believe there are kids who are high achievers who deserve the opportunity to achieve. And sometimes they need extra funds to go above and beyond.”

The education department defends allocating the funds to the 13 schools, saying that they incur more costs by exceeding the academic requirements of traditional high schools. But department spokesman Will Mantell could not explain specific criteria for which schools receive the bonus.

The Department’s guide to Fair Student Funding stipulates only that the money go to “academically challenging high schools.” But Mantell could not specify why, for example, Millennium Brooklyn receives the bonus, but its sister school, Millennium Manhattan, which has a similar curriculum and admissions criteria, does not, or why the iSchool was added to the list. The city reviews the formula annually.

The specialized high schools are known for their academic excellence, offering a range of Advanced Placement classes and routinely sending graduates to elite colleges.

But the schools admit few black and Hispanic students. Last year, black students received only 3.8 percent of offers to specialized high schools, while Hispanic students received just 6.5 percent of the offers, education department data show. At Stuyvesant, just 13 black students were offered admission for the 926-student freshman class this year.

During his campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for ending the specialized high school admission exam. But in office he has not pushed the issue.

The bonus, like the bulk of funds for school budgets, is distributed through a formula that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein rolled out in 2007, called “Fair Student Funding.”

Before the formula was instituted, the education department’s central office gave most schools a fixed number of teachers per student, rather than dollars. But schools with more veteran teachers, who earn more, ended up getting more money to cover those larger salaries.

The net effect, according to Klein, was that schools with similar populations of students ended up with vastly different amounts of city money.

The new formula gave all schools a fixed number of dollars per student, allowing principals the freedom to spend the money as they chose.

Currently, city schools are supposed to get about $4,000 of city money for every student on their register.

Schools get additional dollars based on the number of students who need extra academic support. Students who are learning English, for example, bring an extra 12 to 55 cents on the dollar. Special education students and students who are struggling academically bring extra money as well. Separately, schools get state and federal funds, and money for special city initiatives, such as the drive to offer advanced placement classes in all high schools.

But critics of the formula say it has never achieved the equity it promised. And they point to the bonus for specialized academic schools as one reason why.

“The idea behind Fair Student Funding was that the driver for school budgets was student characteristics, rather than the type of school,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of Education Leadership at Brooklyn College. “By creating, or re-creating, a system based on favored school labels, the DOE is somehow saying that all schools are equal but some are more equal than others.”

Related: NYC’s bold gamble: spend big on impoverished students’ social and emotional needs to get academic gains

The specialized schools are part of a larger group of schools that get extra money from the formula because they offer alternative models of education that cost more to operate, according to the city’s Fair Student Funding Guide. These include performing arts high schools that require auditions for admission, such as Fiorello H. LaGuardia in Manhattan and Frank Sinatra in Queens; career and technical schools that train students in vocations; and transfer schools for students who have dropped out of traditional public schools.

Critics say that extra funding for certain schools, and especially already-thriving ones, undermines the logic of Fair Student Funding.

Kate Burch is the principal and founder of Harvest Collegiate in Union Square, which does not get the bonus. Burch said the extra money would help her school cover after school activities and more teacher training.

Kate Burch is the principal and founder of Harvest Collegiate in Union Square, which does not get the bonus. Burch said the extra money would help her school cover after-school activities and more teacher training.

“What needs to be ‘specialized’ about academics?” said Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate High School in Brooklyn, which shares a building with Millennium, but does not get the bonus. “What does an English class at Millennium need that one at Park Slope Collegiate doesn’t?”

Even with the bonus, the specialized high schools often get far less per pupil than most schools. That’s because they serve few students learning English, special education students or low achievers. And like almost all city schools, they don’t receive 100 percent of the funding the formula calls for. That is a legacy of years of state budget shortfalls that routinely leave the city with less from the state than promised.

For example, Brooklyn Tech, from which de Blasio’s son, Dante, graduated in 2015, gets about 88 percent of the amount it is supposed to based on the Fair Student Funding formula (or $5,328 per pupil this year).

Last year, Stein, the former Brooklyn Tech PTA co-president, began a campaign to fund the school at 100 percent of its formula amount, after she noticed a series of problems related to underfunding.

One example: her daughter took an online SAT course at the school and reported that half of the computers didn’t work.

“Kids called in ‘Broken Tech,’ ” she said. Brooklyn Tech Principal David Newman declined to comment.

Related: A low-income Brooklyn school where 100 percent of black male students graduate

Adam Stevens, a history teacher at Brooklyn Tech, has seen both sides, having taught in schools that receive the academic bonus as well as those that do not. When Stevens compares Brooklyn Tech with Paul Robeson High School, the almost entirely black and Hispanic high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he taught before it was closed in 2014 for poor performance, he comes to this conclusion: “The kids at the regular, segregated schools need [the additional money] more.”

At Brooklyn Tech, there’s both a genetics lab and a robotics program that are rewarding for students and teachers; Robeson High had neither. “The entire city should have these courses,” Stevens said.

Principals whose schools don’t get the bonus money say they have less ability to provide the kind of intellectual enrichment offered at the specialized academic schools – and that makes it harder to attract students at the annual open houses and high school fairs.

Each fall, some 80,000 New York City eighth-graders select from a dizzying array of more than 400 high schools, and rank their top choices; they can apply to up to 12. Choices can include schools required to accept anyone in their geographic zone and those that screen applicants based on grades, attendance and standardized test scores.

Separately, students may also try out for performing arts high schools, or take the SHSAT for schools like Stuyvesant, which boasts several gyms, a swimming pool and four storiea overlooking the New York harbor. Stuyvesant had only 926 seats in this year’s freshman class, yet more than 27,000 students typically apply.

In such a competitive high school choice system, less established and less selective schools face constant pressure to attract more students, and say that even a little bit of extra money could help.

Harvest Collegiate, a small high school near Union Square that doesn’t screen applicants, gets $7,644 per student from the formula.

Kate Burch, the principal and founder of Harvest Collegiate, points out that almost a third of the school’s students are in special education, and another third have serious academic needs. The money, she said, pays for bilingual teachers for English-language learners, case managers for special education students and extra tutoring for struggling students.

That leaves little for after-school clubs, additional teacher training, advanced electives or the full-time guidance counselor Burch would love to hire. “To do all those things just takes extra money, period,” she said.

Related: New York’s upstate cities have some of the worst schools in the country

The differential funding has perhaps the biggest effect on schools that aren’t considered elite enough to qualify for the bonus, but don’t have the deficits that bring in extra money.

They are places like Forest Hills High, in Queens, which does not get federal Title I funding, provided to schools with concentrated amounts of poverty (defined by the percentage of students eligible for free lunch). The Title I cutoff is around 60 percent; at Forest Hills, 53 percent are eligible, according to the principal, Ben Sherman.

Forest Hills High has 3,800 students, who attend school in three overlapping shifts. More than a third of the students are Hispanic, about a quarter are Asian and another quarter white; about 10 percent are black.

More than 500 require special education services, and almost 1,000 test below grade level. The school has a magnet program in the sciences that attracts students from across the city, but it also guarantees admission to those who live in the neighborhood.

“We are in deep financial pain right now,” said Sherman. The school gets $5,446 per student through the formula – this year.

Townsend Harris High School at Queens College in Flushing, gets the specialized academic bonus – and gets almost $600 more per student from the formula than Forest Hills does, even though it had only four students below grade level and two students learning English this school year, according to the department’s data.

Critics say the specialized academic schools have a financial advantage even without the city bonus: well-resourced and well-connected parents, who are tapped for supplementary money and oversee elaborate auctions that can raise tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant maintain endowments of $13 million, $6 million and $2.4 million, respectively, to help fund extracurricular activities.

John B. King Jr., former secretary of education for Barack Obama, and now the leader of a nonpartisan research group called Education Trust, noted that resource disparities between the poorest and the wealthiest students are common across the country, often based on the different amounts of local funding that school districts can raise.

But policies like the specialized academic school bonus can lead to inequity even within the same school district, he said.

“This isn’t just a problem between districts,” King said. “The problem is compounded for the highest-need schools when they are shortchanged again by their districts’ funding systems.”

Former deputy chancellor Eric Nadelstern, who worked in the Department of Education when the bonus was written into the funding formula in 2007, supports the idea of providing extra funding for students identified as “gifted.”

But he proposes distributing that money differently. “The funding should follow the student, not the school,” Nadelstern said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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