Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability

Left Out of the Gov’s Schools Rx

By Brian D. Backstrom, New York Post, January 4, 2013

Hang on to your hats, folks: Those of us who favor serious, overhaul-minded education reforms actually agree with the bullhorn of the “just spend more” crowd, the Campaign for Educational Equity’s Michael Rebell, when he says that the big problem with Gov. Cuomo’s education-reform commission’s report is “what’s not in there.”

Once again, tough decisions needed to revamp New York’s undeniably failing public-education system have been back-burnered in favor of easy-sell ideas sure to offend no one — especially not the champion of the status quo, the state’s politically potent teachers unions.

For the most part, the commission simply took practices already common in today’s best charter schools and suggested them for traditional (“district”) schools: full-day kindergarten and a longer school year; better use of technology; better coordination of social services with educational services.

No offense, but did we really need a 25-member panel to tour the state for half a year to decide these were good ideas?

And the commission said it wouldn’t formally submit even these thin suggestions for yet another nine months or so. We need decisions and action, not more discussion.

Of course, parlous fiscal conditions across New York governments remain paramount in any effort to improve public education. But genuine reform can be achieved without massive new costs.

The commission should have been willing to confront the unions, and propose some no-cost, low-cost or cost-saving reforms, such as:

Mayoral Control: Let city school boards — including those in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and 16 other districts with the same boundaries as their cities — be replaced by a mayoral-control form of school governance. Well-designed mayoral-control systems increase direct accountability for school performance.

Parent Trigger: Empower parents to petition for a redesign of their children’s failing schools. The redesign options should include real change-makers: closing the failing school and re-opening it as an independent charter; letting students transfer to any non-failing public or private school (and take their per-pupil funding with them), and transferring governance of the school to the local mayor.

Open Enrollment: Provide an immediate escape avenue for thousands of students in failing schools with a new statewide policy that lets students transfer to quality public schools, even ones outside of their districts of residence.

Student-Based Funding: Replace the state’s antiquated and needlessly complex education-funding formula with a simple student-based funding process that treats children equally and allows per-pupil funding to follow a student to whatever schools he or she attends.

Expand Public Charter Schools: Eliminate the statutory cap on the number of new charters, let them contract with the same groups that district schools use to better serve special-education students and allow them to serve pre-K students.

School-Choice Vouchers and Education Tax Credits: Provide publicly funded scholarships to students trapped in failing public schools to transfer to better performing public or private schools. Stimulate private giving to education by creating tax credits for donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting groups. Both measures could be designed with lower per-pupil costs than now faced by the state and its localities.

Two ideas from the commission — boosting academic standards for education-school students and creating a teachers’ bar exam — were touted by national American Federation of Teachers a month ago. They’re fine reforms — but if we’re going to demand better quality in our teachers, let’s also ensure that our best teachers have an avenue toward reward and that our worst teachers can be fired more easily. But merit pay and streamlined termination procedures weren’t among the commission’s proposals.

Paying more for star teachers in the classroom could be funded by paying less — much less — for teachers and administrators no longer in the classroom. Today’s extreme and unsustainable retirement packages should be trimmed by further raising the retirement age, replacing guaranteed-benefit pensions with reasonable defined-contribution 401(k)-style plans and making retirement health-benefit packages more modest.

The planned delay of the education commission’s final report until the fall conveniently avoids this year’s entire session of the Legislature. But New York schoolchildren shouldn’t be made to wait any more for real reform. Let’s get meaningful changes done now.

Brian D. Backstrom is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.