Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday that he intends to put an end to the status quo when it comes to New York’s failing schools. Far from backing away from his recent comments calling for a “death penalty” for these schools, the governor said he intends to set benchmarks and consequences for schools – and school districts – when they don’t give students the education the students deserve.
“What I’m saying on education is, failing schools are not acceptable. Period. It has to end, and it has to end now,” he said in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board. “Our society’s willingness to perpetuate this situation is no longer acceptable. We need dramatic action, and it’s going to come to a head.”
Improvement models for failing schools might include a range of options, including restructuring poor schools as holistic “community schools” or having charter schools take over, he said. If an entire district is failing, the possibility of mayoral takeovers or state takeovers might exist, he said.
Wherever the bar for school or district “failure” gets set, he said, his plan would likely have local communities decide how they want to change the governance of schools that don’t measure up. The one thing local communities will not be allowed to do is nothing.
“You can have a state policy that says, if you get under this grade you fail, but then say to a locality, ‘You have to do something about your failing schools. Here are options, and I’m not going to tell you what to do, but you have to do something,’ ” Cuomo said.
The governor refused to delve into specifics, saying that he intends to roll out his education reform plan in his State of the State address in January. But he did offer some broad possibilities, all of which would be tied to the new teacher evaluations that the governor said will help determine which schools are failing their students.
He said the issues the state must address are: How do you determine whether a school is failing; how do you use the data to set cutoffs for school success or failure; and what alternatives will the state put in place for schools that aren’t working now?
When asked if the state is in a better position to direct school improvement than local communities are, Cuomo responded, “If not the state, then who?”
He alluded to the steady stream of unpleasant news swamping Buffalo city schools in recent months.
“How have you done? How’s it going? Tell me,” he said. “You’re saying, is the state better? It depends. Compared to what? Compared to how Buffalo is doing? If I’m you, I’m looking for an alternative just about now.”
Of the many options for changing failing New York schools, Cuomo spent the most time describing a “community school” concept, which would apply to schools serving children in poor neighborhoods.
“A school in a poor community is really not a school,” he said, “and to compare a school in a poor community to a school in a rich community – that analysis is bogus, because the school in a poor community is trying to do many more things than a school in a rich community.”
Society needs to acknowledge that schools filled with poor students serve different functions, Cuomo said, and are more of a cross between an educational institution and a community center that serves both social service and educational needs.
“In a rich community, you have the parents, you have the after-school care, you have a healthy home,” he said. “The school in a poor community is a school, a mentor, a nutritionist, a counselor. ... You have students where it’s not just an education problem. Then don’t call it an education problem, and don’t expect the teacher in a school to be able to wear seven hats with no money and no training and no resources.
“I call that community schools. That’s an alternative.”
He suggested the state would make money available to provide these community schools the support services they need.
He also repeated his position that money, alone, won’t solve the problems facing education, because so much of it is spent to support a bureaucratic system.
“We spend more money per student in this state than any other state in the nation,” he said, pointing out that the state’s test scores don’t reflect that spending. “So when they say to me, ‘Well, if you’d only increase the education budget, that’s the answer’ – no. The answer is obviously not just the money.”
The mayoral model
In regard to a mayoral takeover of a school district, the governor pointed to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s takeover of Chicago Public Schools and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s firing of that city school board’s top leaders.“He was adamant that he wanted control of the schools,” Cuomo said. “He thought he was the mayor, this was one of the main functions of the city.”
Those cases stand in stark contrast to the position taken by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, whom Cuomo endorsed Thursday.
“I read a transcript in your paper where he said in the mayoral debate, ‘I have nothing to do with the schools.’ ” Cuomo said. “As a legal matter, he doesn’t. As a legal matter, I don’t.”
Brown has generally taken a hands-off approach to the district, which has earned him criticism from his two campaign opponents, both of whom advocate more direct influence and control over the school district.
Cuomo, meanwhile, has spearheaded a statewide teacher-evaluation system during his first two years. He described that effort as a “horrendous” – but hugely important – undertaking in Albany. The initial results of that evaluation system drew sharp criticism this week from members of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, who described the results released to teachers last weekend as riddled with errors and fundamentally flawed.
The governor acknowledges that his call for education reform includes many ideas that already have been put forth and discussed in recent years by the State Legislature. Those bills have gone nowhere.
The problem of what to do about bad schools is like many tough issues that never get resolved, he said. “Everybody has an argument, and everybody has a point, but nothing happens.”
Cuomo said he intends to sponsor new legislation next year and support existing reform bills to move the bar. He also said he thinks he has an advantage because the teacher-evaluation system is in place. Those evaluations can help drive decision-making, he said.
“Now, you have numbers and you have performance data, and you can say what school works and what school doesn’t, and what teachers are working well and what teachers aren’t working well,” Cuomo said. “And it brings facts to an emotional argument that’s been going on for a long time. I think facts are going to bring clarity.”
By sometime next year, he said, he hopes a new policy and new direction will be set for failing public schools. Implementation of the new policy will likely take longer, he said, likening the change of direction in education to the change in direction of a cargo freighter.Disruption is necessary, he said.
“The basic point is, you can’t continue doing what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s not working, and madness is allowing the current situation to continue.”
In other topics, the governor:
• Did not commit to tax cuts that reports indicate he said he favored during a recent fundraiser in the Hamptons, but he did say he is “generically” in favor of cutting taxes as he has in the past.
“We have to actually see what the numbers are,” he said. “We don’t know yet.”
He added that he agreed with a new proposal advanced by the Unshackle Upstate business group about cutting taxes – especially upstate – though he questioned whether a proposal so specific to one region would pass constitutional muster.
Still, he said, the idea of aiding economically distressed upstate lies at the heart of his StartUp N.Y. proposal, which would grant tax breaks to companies starting up on or near SUNY campuses; 59 of the 64 campuses are upstate.
• Did not commit to a position on a $5 billion environmental bond issue proposed by Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Long Island, the subject of a hearing in Albany today.
“I haven’t seen it,” he said.