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Inequities Lead to Dual System in N.Y., Panel Finds

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New York State has created a dual public education system that frequently blocks poor and minority students from achieving the schooling they need to be productive and financially independent citizens, a state commission has concluded.

Presented to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo last month, the report makes numerous recommendations to balance the system and improve the public schools over all.

"Our public elementary and secondary schools--with notable exceptions--still sift and sort children along undeniable lines of social class,'' writes H. Patrick Swygert, the chairman of the New York State Special Commission on Educational Structure, Policies, and Practices.

"Despite the promise of education as the best route to achieving the 'American Dream,' too many children pass through our schools without ever gaining the skills to succeed as productive, self-reliant adult members of our society,'' states Mr. Swygert, the president of the State University of New York at Albany.

Angered by reports of the high pay of some school administrators, Governor Cuomo last May created the panel to examine the policies and spending practices of school districts and regional boards of cooperative-education services. (See Education Week, June 2, 1993.)

To come up with its four-volume report, the commission held five public hearings, surveyed more than 2,000 local school officials, contracted with educational consultants for research and analysis, and visited more than 20 districts, extensively reviewing seven of them.

Veteran Teachers Profit

In his preface to the report, Mr. Swygert contends that money alone will not improve student performance, citing evidence that higher state funding for education over the past decade has failed to yield increases in achievement.

Instead, he notes, the increases "have funded more administration and higher salaries for senior teachers [and] have benefited some special programs.''

"The present organization and structure of public education largely works for teachers, administrators, school board members, and their unions and associations,'' Mr. Swygert adds.

The commission found that nearly one-third of state increases in per-pupil spending over the past dozen years went to teaching students with disabilities.

But a huge chunk also went to veteran teachers' salaries, prompting the commission to question a practice that it says goes against mounting evidence that it is more effective to offer relatively high starting salaries.

In many districts, the report says, "salary increases appear not to have been allocated so as to recruit and retain the best qualified individuals.''

Still, the commission acknowledged that more money could help in some instances, and suggested a way of raising it.

The panel recommended legislation under which non-residential property would be taxed on a countywide basis and the revenue redistributed within the county on a per-pupil basis.

Such a system would be simpler to administer than a statewide regionalization of non-residential property, the report maintains, while providing "almost as fair'' a distribution of per-pupil wealth.

Fiscal Independence Sought

While more students would benefit than be hurt by the reform, according to the report, the New York City school system would be among the districts that would lose funds as a result.

The panel did include a positive recommendation for New York City, however, proposing that it and the other "Big Five'' districts--Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers--be given control of their own finances, which other districts in the state already have.

By granting them fiscal independence from their municipal governments, the report says, the big districts could be held accountable for their budgets. Moreover, the districts would no longer have to compete directly for funding with other city services.

To further accountability, the commission also suggested that consideration be given to electing school board members in New York City and Yonkers.

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