School & District Management

‘Reform Agenda’ in New York

By Michele McNeil — February 06, 2007 7 min read
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New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is dangling billions of dollars in extra aid and the promise of universal prekindergarten in front of his state’s public schools—along with the prospect of mandated performance contracts for districts, and the threat that local boards and superintendents could be ousted and hundreds of schools closed if they fail to improve.

In a state where public education is overseen by a board of regents and education commissioner independent of the governor, Gov. Spitzer made clear last week that he will take an active role in education policy. He outlined a multiyear agenda and tapped Manuel J. Rivera, the superintendent of the 34,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district, to be his chief education adviser. (“Rivera Bows Out; Boston to Open New Hunt,” Jan. 31, 2007.)

The newly inaugurated Democrat, who detailed his plans in a Jan. 29 speech here, joins a sizable class of governors who are proposing significant education initiatives because they believe their future economies depend on it.

“The states that are going to make the biggest progress and get the most economic benefit from education reform will be the ones where the governors step up,” said former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, who is the board chairman of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat and the chairwoman of the National Governors Association, has helped focus the country’s governors on the issue with her Innovation America initiative, aimed at making high schools more inventive in the fields of science, math, and technology so graduates can better compete in the world economy.

“Governors feel like education shouldn’t be isolated anymore in another department,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who served in state education departments under a total of four governors, in Kentucky and Arkansas.

Sweeping Changes

Gov. Spitzer’s plan for New York touches nearly every part of public education, ensuring that he won’t have an easy ride in the state legislature, where Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate.

“We are poised to begin implementing what may be the greatest reform agenda directly tied to the largest infusion of resources in our state’s history,” Gov. Spitzer said in his speech. “The dynamic is about to change dramatically. We just need the political will to make it happen.”

He proposed taxpayer-funded prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds, and a state special-needs team that will scrutinize schools with especially high referral rates of low-income and minority children for special education services. He wants to lift the cap on charter schools to 250, from 100, but require the additional schools to abide by strict new accountability rules. In addition, regular public schools that lost money because students left for charter schools would be given transitional aid.

In a nod to private schools, Gov. Spitzer is proposing a $1,000 income-tax credit to help families pay for tuition.

His plan also would change how schools are financed and held accountable.

Each of the state’s 697 districts would be required to sign a “contract for excellence” in order to receive funding increases of at least $15 million, or 10 percent per district. The districts would agree to meet goals in areas such as test scores and graduation rates. And they would have to spend their extra money on a state-approved “menu” of programs proven to improve student achievement, such as longer school days.

Gov. Spitzer also would get rid of what he called the current “Byzantine” school funding formula that doles out money in geographic shares and results in different parts of the state getting roughly the same amount. The new formula would be based on a foundation amount and adjusted for the needs of districts. Districts would have to account for how the money was allocated and spent, down to the school level.

Local leaders would face new consequences if their students failed. School districts would be required to negotiate contracts with superintendents that include a requirement for dismissal after “substantial failure.” Principals and superintendents would get their own report cards. And for school boards found to be failing according to some yardstick still to be determined, Gov. Spitzer wants to empower the state commissioner of education to eject their members.

If necessary, the state should be prepared to close schools—up to 5 percent of all public schools statewide, he said.

Two days after the speech, the governor put money behind his agenda in his first budget proposal, which would pour an additional $7 billion a year into local schools by the 2010 budget year. That means annual school spending would grow from its current level of $17.8 billion a year to $24.8 billion a year by the 2010 budget year.

In addition, the state and New York City jointly would kick in $5.4 billion more a year for New York City public schools. That would satisfy New York state’s high court, which ruled last year that the state had violated the New York Constitution by not providing enough aid to give the city’s students a “sound, basic education,” and ordered that at least $1.93 billion more a year be spent. (“Aid Award Cut in Suit Over N.Y.C.,” Nov. 29, 2006.)

Legislative Hurdles

The next stop for Gov. Spitzer’s agenda is the legislature, where battle lines already are clear.

Raising the cap on the number of charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent, has met with fierce legislative resistance in the past, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, raised questions again in a statement issued after the governor’s plans were unveiled.

In addition, the prospect of a new funding formula brings its own new set of arguments, as will the proposal to give families a tax credit for private school tuition.

The New York State United Teachers union, which lauded Gov. Spitzer for the most part, is concerned about the private school tuition tax credit, and a possible expansion of charter schools. And the State School Boards Association is concerned about its members having a say in the opening of more charter schools.

But from a political perspective, Gov. Spitzer’s reform agenda is a “shrewd attempt” to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, said Syracuse University political science professor Jeffrey M. Stonecash.

For Republicans, the governor is insisting on accountability. Democrats, meanwhile, will like additional cash for school and the fact that the governor didn’t blame teachers for schools’ problems.

“The speech blames the superintendents and the school boards. Who cares about them?” the professor said.

The big question, he said, is how well Gov. Spitzer will work with legislators. His three-term predecessor, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, infuriated the legislature by openly disdaining members and refusing to negotiate, Mr. Stonecash said.

Gov. Pataki also had a distant, sometimes difficult relationship with the state education department. In New York’s system, the commissioner of education is hired by the 16-member board of regents, who are chosen by the legislature and who oversee a system of 7,000 public schools and 284 state colleges and universities. Clearly, Gov. Spitzer wants to have a better relationship.

Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills noted that Gov. Spitzer delivered his speech in the education department building, included regents on his transition team, and invited board members to help lead the charge for his agenda. Notably, Mr. Mills will serve in a new “Children’s Cabinet” the governor is creating.

“He’s offering a partnership. It’s not always been like this,” Mr. Mills said. “He’s giving us strong leadership. This is how it’s done.”

Other state schools chiefs agree.

“You can be so much more productive when you share the same philosophy on education,” said Arkansas Commissioner of Education T. Kenneth James, who was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, and reappointed by new Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat.

That doesn’t mean Gov. Spitzer won’t have his own education policy advisers.

The governor has entrusted Mr. Rivera, who backed out of plans to assume the superintendent’s job in Boston, with the $169,000-a-year job of translating Gov. Spitzer’s ideas into law and policy.

“I knew it was an opportunity to play a key role,” Mr. Rivera said in a press conference last week. “We’re all after the same thing: significantly improving graduation rates.”

If Gov. Spitzer can overcome opposition from lawmakers and interest groups, some of his proposals could break new ground.

Jacob E. Adams, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California, said, “If you need to allocate and account for money down to the school level, it’s going to force the system to spend money in ways that help students learn.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Reform Agenda’ in New York

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