The education policy proposal that Comptroller John Liu put forth today sounded strange coming from the man charged with ensuring the city’s financial health: Add $176 million a year to the Department of Education’s payroll.
But Liu said city students so badly need more help applying to college that it would be worth spending the money to bring on more than 1,500 new guidance counselors, even if he didn’t think the funds could be freed up elsewhere within the department’s $23 billion budget.
“Investment in education today is the best economic development policy for tomorrow,” said Liu, a likely mayoral candidate, at a press conference that also featured union officials and education advocates.
“The economic challenges facing our city can best be addressed by educating many more New Yorkers beyond high school,” he added.
The proposal is the first in the comptroller’s “Beyond High School NYC” initiative, which Liu said today would use research to propose “strategic investments in public education” to raise the college-graduation rate for New York City public school students. Liu’s office calculated that just 21 percent of students who enter city high schools later graduate from college, echoing the city’s own determination that just 21 percent of students are college-ready.
In today’s proposal, Liu calls for the city to hire 1,600 new counselors to join the 1,300 that are already working in city high schools, allowing each counselor to shoulder a caseload of just 100 students. Currently, the student-to-counselor ration is 259:1, his office found, with some counselors supporting many fewer or many more students.
With a smaller caseload, traditional guidance counselors could continue to work with needy students while dedicated college counselors could do more to coach students through the application and financial aid processes, Liu said.
“This is the biggest gap between students and the colleges that they should be going to,” he said.
Liu said the Department of Education could pay for the new counselors, whose salaries would amount to about 1 percent of the department’s annual budget, by reducing its spending on contracts with private vendors. But he also said focusing on the short-term cost would be short-sighted.
“Stepping back away from the idea that this is just about $176 million — no it’s not,” he said. “It’s about what the city needs to be economically competitive and even viable going into the future.”
Responding to Liu’s proposal, Mayor Bloomberg said today that adding more personnel is an attractive but impractical strategy.
“You can never have enough guidance counselors, school crossing guards, physics teachers — in every part of the city we’d like to have more, but you have to have some kind of balance,” he said. “But I think in this case the DOE is what we’ll rely on to decide what we need.”
The department has concluded that the cost of installing more full-time counselors in each school is too high, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said in June.
But the department is taking other approaches to tackle the problem of low college completion. Starting this year, high schools’ annual letter grades will be dependent in part on whether graduates enter and stay in college. The department is also pushing schools to raise academic expectations by giving extra credit to schools that prove that their courses are challenging.
The department is also in the process of sending teachers and staff at each high school to Goddard Riverside Options Center, a nonprofit with experience in guiding students through the college process. The training program, which is privately funded, aims to train one staff member for every 35 seniors at high schools that participate, officials said.
Polakow-Suransky suggested that schools take advantage of the training and also motivate students by making the college application process, for example by turning the actual submission of applications into a celebration.
”Those kinds of culture rituals and making it at the heart of the school’s community don’t actually cost money,” he said.
Liu’s report does include some lower-cost recommendations. He is also calling on the city to create systems to identify when students are falling behind, which some schools already have in place, to connect city schools with area colleges, and to develop programs that bridge the time gap between high school graduation and college matriculation.
Among the options, Liu said, would be to expand the student-run Student Success Centers that currently operate on four high school campuses. Another would be to recruit more of the city’s 400,000 college students to tutor and mentor high schoolers.
But Liu and union officials said those supports should be come in addition to new personnel, not instead of them.
“We should not be farming this out,” said Ernest Logan, head of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “It’s a nice idea for everyone to help … but primarily, it’s our role to do this.”
Guidance counselors are members of the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, 300 of them are without jobs after their positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or school closures. They are being sent to different schools each week, with helping students complete college applications part of their charge.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the department could deploy the counselors more effectively. “While will they not just dispatch them to the schools where the needs are?” he asked.
At least one city educator is not holding his breath for Liu’s proposal to become policy.
“I would love to hire 14 more guidance counselors,” John Galvin, a vice principal of I.S. 318, which has 1,600 students and two counselors, wrote on Twitter. “Not happening.”