Except for here in the city (and four other places), today is a very big day across the state. Today, school districts across much of the state are having their annual school budget vote. The five urban school districts (called the "Big Five') don't follow the same budget timeline (which began way back in February) as the rest of the state, but in almost every other area of New York, residents of communities are going to polls to tell their schools that the district either may, or may not, have the money to fund the programs and initiatives that the districts have requested to be funded for the next academic year (2013-14).
I always thought that the lengthy process of drafting and ratifying a school budget with a school district-wide vote had the ultimate result of increasing the community's interest and participation in what the school district was doing. And although the districts across the state raise their school money from property taxes (something that isn't really done here in the city), I think the New York City would be better off if it found a way to duplicate this system.
And it actually isn't that difficult to conceptualize. Much of the city's school budget (about $16 billion this year) comes from income taxes. Wouldn't it be great if we had process each year that began in February, passed through several stages in April where the school district (the NYCDOE) had to present their budget in several public forums and ultimately ended with a city-wide vote on the school's budget? As is the case for districts outside of the urban areas, the city's DOE would have to come up with three plans (plan A, B and C) in the event that initial budget didn't pass. Ultimately, every year, the residents of New York City (our school district) would vote up or down on whether or not they wanted to fork over money from their paychecks to fund the city's schools the way the department would want.
I'm sure that eduwonks and policy makers (and unionists) who stumble across this post may have just rolled their eyes at the political choas that that may create.The process, however, would be more democratic and would include many more stakeholders than the process we currently have (not just for funding but for policy and priorities as well). In fact, here are five reasons New York City schools might be better if they participated in the same school budget process (using income taxes instead of payroll taxes) as do other districts throughout the state.
Transparency - Every voting citizen in the city would have access to where each dollar in the city's schools are spent. How much is being spent on no bid contracts this year? On school busing? On classroom supplies and curriculum? We'd all know because the NCYDOE (the most opaque system in the world outside of the US military) would have to submit those spending plans for approval each year.
It would encourage community involvement - The strangest thing happens when you say to a community -any community- 'Hey. We're asking you or your neighbors to pay your share of $16 Billion. Here's our budget plan'. People become interested and involved. In the real world of politics, communities, having a say in how much is spent on things like curriculum and supplies, would find themselves more organized and staking out a position on the budget -the first step in staking out their claim in course of the city's schools.
It will keep the politics local - As local as New York City can get anyway. Something like this would (for the most part) exclude the state government from the process. Currently, the mayor and city council must ask the state government permission to raise the amount of taxes that they do. This means that each and every year, the question of how much NYC spends on schools starts at City Hall, moves up to Albany (where it bangs around for a few months) and comes back down here as a fait accompli. The trouble with this is it doesn't involve actual residents of the city! That's not very democratic at all. A process that leads to a city-wide tax vote would include these people. That means that the politics, though ramped up to a higher level than they are now, would remain here, in the city (where they belong).
The residents of the city will have final say over how a large portion of their city tax dollars are spent -As any resident of any community should. Final say over taxes (any tax) encourages democracy. It reinforces the idea that these are 'our' schools. I don't mean to be redundant here. I just mean to say that members of a community should have final say over their school taxes. It's (I hate to say this) the American way and it should come to New York City.
It would help to provide a counterbalance to mayoral control - As we all search for what that right balance is, we should think about the fact that parents and community members, teachers and principals alike would have a fairly large, though indirect, say over school policy if the mayor has to face a school budget vote once every year. That's how things work out in other areas of the state (where many of the schools produce better indicators than the city does) and that's how it should be here. Sure. Fine. Let one person run the schools. That person can pick the top brass, set the pace and lay out the agenda. But give the purse strings to the great multitude. Let residents listen to activists and unionists and politicians and other interested people as they discuss whether the school's budget meets the priorities that they are happy with in the weeks leading up to that budget vote. It was Bill Clinton who once said that there was a tool for setting priorities and goals and that that tool was called the budget. Let voters have access to that tool. Let the mayor explain to them year in, year out, the what any real democratic politician should, what his (or her!) priorities are and how the submitted budget meets those priorities. Let's just see if $800 Million suddenly disappears or if $1 Billion increase on lawyers in the department is ratified.
Sure, it would be messy and dramatic and wrought with peril. But given what we have now, it may be better to embrace Al Smith's idea about how the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.