N.Y. Regents Release New Plan to Improve Schools

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A new Board of Regents proposal to improve New York's public schools includes far more charter schools and would link teacher compensation and advancement to student performance.

Those are also requirements for New York to qualify for as much as $700 million in the Obama administration's Race to the Top funding, a new program to encourage school reform. But both measures have been successfully opposed so far by the state's powerful teachers' unions and the Legislature.

Much of the Regents' proposal requires the Legislature's approval. The plan would allow persistently low-performing schools to be converted to charter schools, potentially by an order of the state education commissioner.

The proposal seeks to lift the cap on the number of charter schools, now set at 200. State officials note New York could get the most "points" toward the competitive federal grants if the cap was doubled to 400 charter schools.

The proposal would revise state standardized tests so they more closely track student performance on national tests, and offer a uniform curriculum and tests in the arts, economics and multimedia computer technology.

The plan would link a teacher's job evaluation to student performance under improved tests and as part of a variety of factors. It would also improve teacher training by colleges and mentors.

The plan would also provide options to closing the worst schools including firing the principal and half the teachers and hiring an outside management firm.

"We should not place a teacher in a classroom, nor a principal in a school, before each has demonstrated their capacity to be effective, including their ability to raise the academic achievement of all students," said state Education Commissioner David Steiner said, who has been in the job two months.

The Regents' proposal drew quick support from frequent critics of education policy in New York, but concern from the New York State United Teachers union, a top lobbyist and campaign contributor with strong support in the Legislature.

Maria Neira, vice president of the union, said NYSUT insists that the states' standardized tests be improved and curriculums be aligned before teachers accept student performance as a factor in teacher evaluations.

Neira also warned that the cap in charter schools shouldn't be lifted until the charter school system is fully evaluated. She said new charter schools should only be allowed if there is no financial cost to the nearby traditional public school.

"Conceptually we have agreement in many of the areas, but we do have some concerns," she said.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat, praised the Regents' plan and is optimistic the Legislature will act on measures needed to qualify for the federal Race to the Top fund by the deadline in mid-January.

"With the deficit next year to be approaching $8 billion or $10 billion or maybe more, I don't know how you can turn your back on $700 million in federal funding," said Hoyt, a leading supporter of charter schools. "That kind of money can help prevent massive layoffs and dramatic class-size increases."

Peter Murphy of the New York Charter Schools Association credited President Obama, who "made it financially worthwhile for reluctant states like New York to do the right thing and genuinely reform public education."

"It's significant that the state's Board of Regents is asking for a raising of the charter school cap," said B. Jason Brooks, director of research and communications for the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, a think tank.

Charter schools are public schools run by nonprofit managers free to innovate and establish their own policies, programs, management, and hiring. They must gain re-approval every five years. The number of charter schools is now near the 200-school maximum.

The measures come at a time when Gov. David Paterson says school aid — including per-pupil state aid and school property taxes among the highest nationwide — needs to be reduced to affordable levels.

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