Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability

Falling Short of Real Reform

By Brian Backstrom, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, January 5, 2013

The recent article on recommendations by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission painted too rosy a picture. While the commission’s proposals are good, they are not the ground-shaking overhaul-inducing policies our state’s public education system needs.

Full-day kindergarten, longer school years, better use of technology, greater effort to use social services when needed, etc., all are practices already used at some of the state’s most successful public charter schools. The report called for increasing academic standards for education school students and creating a teacher’s bar exam, both worthy ideas, but then sidestepped the related issue of merit-based pay scales for teachers. Increased budgetary transparency and higher academic expectations for prospective teachers also are good ideas, but ones that just nibble at the edge of real reform.

New York’s public education system is broken, and trying to glue the pieces together isn’t what’s needed.

We need to redesign the system, to rethink our approach, to provide new pathways to success and new tools to get there.

Allowing city school boards — including those in Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and 15 other school districts that have the same boundaries as their cities — to be replaced by a mayoral-control form of school governance would increase direct accountability for the performance of public schools and allow more rapid fixes to be instituted. Giving parents the power to petition for a redesign of their children’s failing schools through a “parent trigger” policy would provide a route to reform around school boards reluctant or unwilling to act.

District bureaucrats should no longer be allowed to draw boundaries that force parents to send their children to failing schools based simply on where they live. Enacting a statewide policy of open-enrollment that allows students in failing schools to transfer to quality public schools located within and outside their districts of residence would provide an immediate escape route for thousands of students.

If we continue to expect more of our teachers, we should be prepared to give more to those that prove to be the best in their profession through a merit-pay system funded by paying less to teachers no longer in the classroom. The unsustainable retirement packages currently offered should be changed to replace guaranteed-benefit pensions with reasonable defined-contribution 401(k)-style plans and adopting more modest retirement health packages.

Transformative changes such as these will help get the state’s public education system where it needs to be.

Backstrom is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, located in the Albany area.