Quality education is without a doubt one of the necessary foundations for a thriving community. Excellent schools create excellent graduates, and that creates a pool of potential employees that can help attract business.
It is that fundamental truth that drives Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s continued effort to improve education in New York State, an effort that calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach from all stakeholders.
The most recent example of the governor’s commitment to education has come in a preliminary report by his Education Reform Commission.
The 25-member commission is headed by Richard Parsons, former chief executive of Time Warner Corp., and includes Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, State Education Commissioner John B. King and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Suggestions range from longer teaching days and academic years, teacher competency exams, more pre-kindergarten, district consolidations and the recruitment of top high school and college graduates as educators.
Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, said it well when she talked about Cuomo’s leadership in putting education issues on the front burner. The Regents praised the work – far from over – of laying out a clear road map for improving education. The commission’s recommendations are well aligned, she said, with the Regents Reform Agenda and with the priorities in the state’s Race to the Top funding and programs.
But real reforms must have political will behind them, particularly on the topic of district consolidation. Erie County is one of the state’s worst offenders when it comes to the number of school districts, with a staggering 27, along with two Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). As civic leader Kevin Gaughan has cited in his research, this number is wildly out of proportion to any other community of like size. Moreover, 17 of those districts have fewer than 3,000 students each.
With many of those districts facing financial crisis, some superintendents have strongly hinted that it is unsustainable and unrealistic to operate under an old system designed for far more students. In this era of the tax cap, our current model is clearly unsustainable. That simple fact should drive new discussions that lead promptly to change. Persuading critics of such change will be difficult, but necessary.
The laser focus should be on delivering high-quality education to all students in the most efficient and effective manner possible. That effort requires the strongest possible board of education in each district.
This is especially important in Buffalo, where less than 50 percent of students graduate from high school. The nine-member Board of Education has tremendous authority over education in the city, including choosing a superintendent. Unfortunately, with board elections in May, barely 4 percent of Buffalo voters bother to cast ballots.
That low turnout hands over a disproportionate amount of power to special interest groups able to get their voters to the polls. Albany, therefore, should move school board elections from May to the general election in November, when voters are more likely to focus on the candidates and go to the polls.
The governor’s Education Reform Commission has said that its action plan is designed to take the first steps to implement its vision for New York’s future. Members will continue their work over the next year.
Everyone in New York has a stake in education. Vigorous discussion of the issues, followed by action, can make 2013 really count for children.