Underbooked

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After eight years of tutoring in the city’s public schools, Cecelia Caruso became fed up watching students from Harlem’s District 5 and Fordham’s District 10 bringing photocopied worksheets to her sessions. Kids from well-off Queens districts 25 and 26 came in with textbooks, and they generally had better grades.

So last summer she created a new organization, Fighters for Equality in the Allocation of Textbooks. In January she started writing to high-ranking officials at the Board of Education and the City Comptroller’s office, citing a dozen schools citywide that didn’t have enough books.

Caruso’s crusade isn’t a new one. In 1996, the advocacy group Education Priorities Panel (EPP) found that one-third of the New York City school teachers surveyed felt that they didn’t have enough textbooks to teach effectively. That year, the Board of Education allocated only $40 per student for textbooks–of which $35 was state money.

In November 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced an election-year education dividend–a one-time $70 million allocation for textbooks to add to $37.8 million from the state and $10 million from the City Council.

“At this point there should be no excuse for a school to not have textbooks,” says Noreen Connell, EPP executive director.

But advocates say the problem persists. Diane Lowman, a board member of the Bronx activists Mothers on the Move, says the $2.4 million budgeted to District 8 for textbooks last year has done little good–her 8-year-old son had no books to take home. She had her son transferred to District 7 because she felt helpless when his grades began to drop. “That money should have put textbooks in the hands of every student in the district,” Lowman says. “I tried to give him the one-on-one attention that he wasn’t getting at school, but when I had no reference for the material, how could I help him?”

In 1997, Lowman’s group tried to document the scope of the problem by surveying District 8 principals, only to be rebuffed. So they lobbied the City Comptroller’s office to investigate. According to office spokesperson David Neustadt, the comptroller will soon release an audit on how the Board of Education has spent textbook money in the Bronx.

When questioned on the topic, Steven Newman, the city’s first deputy comptroller, told City Limits to call Board of Education Deputy Chancellor Harry Spence and he would explain that “there was a textbook problem at one point, but it doesn’t exist anymore.” Spence did not return City Limits‘ calls.