Mills Proposes Broad Urban Policy for N.Y.

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New York policymakers have proposed what they hope will become the first explicitly urban education agenda for one of the nation's most urban states, in a plan aimed at targeting state resources to where they're needed most.

The centerpiece of the "urban partnership" is a call for $202 million in extra state aid in the coming school year to help districts meet the state's rising academic standards. About three-quarters of that money would go to the 45 mostly urban districts that state officials have designated as "high need" because of their concentrations of students in jeopardy of academic failure.

The proposal by the state board of regents and Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills blends several new ideas with a range of strategies already under way, including an ongoing crackdown on failing schools.

State officials are billing their plan as a "joint venture" with needy districts, rather than a top-down strategy for whipping city schools into shape. Instead, they say they want to build on existing efforts in urban districts, including the "Big Five"--Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers.

"All of them have reform strategies, yet all of them acknowledge they aren't where they want to be," Mr. Mills said last week. "I don't think a state department of education can do it alone, and I don't think that a city can do it alone."

While school leaders generally welcome that collaborative approach, some observers suggested that the proposal may not do enough to ensure that districts make wise use of the extra money they may receive.

"We want to see a little more teeth in it," said Antonia C. Cortese, the first vice president of New York State United Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "But certainly it's going in the right direction. It's focusing our attention and our resources."

Testing Gap Cited

The release of the proposed 10-point urban strategy earlier this month coincided with the state's second annual school report card. State analysis of that data underscored the performance gap between the 45 high-need systems--which enroll half the state's 2.8 million public school students--and the rest of the state's more than 700 districts.

In grade 3 reading, for example, 74 percent of students in the high-need districts meet the state's minimum standards, compared with 92 percent in the rest of the state.

"While urban schools have improved in the past year, we need a lot more and we need it urgently," Mr. Mills said.

New York is in the midst of a broad retooling of its standards and assessment systems that will, when fully phased in, require most students to pass an array of "regents' exams" that have traditionally been reserved for college-bound students.

In English and math, those testing requirements have started kicking in, and the state's analysis revealed wide disparities in passing rates. In both subjects, fewer than half the high school students in the high-need districts posted passing scores last year, compared with three-quarters or more of students elsewhere.

State officials hope such statistics will convince lawmakers that schools need more money to help their students keep pace with the rising standards. Urban educators in particular have criticized the state in the past for not providing more help in preparing their students and teachers for the tougher requirements.

The proposed urban policy, especially the $202 million in "standards-implementation aid," is designed to address that need. To qualify for the aid, districts would have to write comprehensive plans for improving achievement among students who are at risk of falling short of the higher standards.

Elements of the plans would include programs to provide students with extra help, such as after-school tutoring and summer school; teacher training in crucial areas such as reading; and plans for tracking individual students' progress from year to year.

Education department staff members would work with districts in drafting the plans and putting them in place.

Proven Programs Sought

Ms. Cortese of the state teachers' union said districts should be required as part of those plans to channel standards aid to programs that research has proved boost the achievement of disadvantaged students. "If we know it works, we ought to make sure that's what districts are using," she said.

Ms. Cortese said the union believes districts need at least $300 million next year to implement the higher standards--nearly 50 percent more than the regents have proposed--and would lobby lawmakers for it.

Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, did not include money for the standards aid in his proposed 1998-99 budget, which called for increasing state aid to districts by $518 million. Overall, the regents called for aid to grow by about $355 million more than the governor favors.

The legislature has yet to reach agreement on a new state budget, which is ostensibly due by April 1 but which is usually not final until many weeks later.

In addition to the standards aid, the proposed urban agenda calls for, among other measures, creating financial incentives for recruiting and keeping well-qualified teachers in urban schools.

It also proposes strategies for decreasing disruption and violence, including more state money for alternative schools, better training for school leaders in effective discipline, and technical assistance for schools with the worst suspension and attendance problems.

Christine Johnson, the director of urban initiatives for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, praised New York's effort to articulate a comprehensive urban policy. She said states that haven't done so should consider following suit.

"Now these policy areas are working together with some coherence," she said. "I hope this serves as a model for other states."

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