Educators stunned by Cuomo's school 'death penalty'

Students listen and take notes during class. (May

Students listen and take notes during class. (May 1, 2013) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's recent suggestion that failing schools on Long Island and elsewhere should face a swift operational "death penalty" if they don't shape up has stunned local educators, who say meaningful reforms generally take years to achieve.

Cuomo's remarks -- the first indication of how he might deal with low-performing schools -- came at a news conference last week in upstate Lockport, near Buffalo.

The governor, in response to a reporter's question, floated the idea that such schools might be taken over by private charter operators or other agencies, after the schools were given "a short time to repair themselves."


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"There has to be a death penalty for failing schools, so to speak, where we say the children come first, before the bureaucracy," Cuomo said.

The governor has not yet proposed specific legislation, which would be required to change the management of any public schools. Cuomo aides Wednesday could not say when such a proposal might be made.

The most likely candidates for any takeover legislation would be the 220 schools posted on an Albany "priority" list, as they rank academically in the bottom 5 percent statewide. Six of them are on Long Island, in the districts of Central Islip, Hempstead, Roosevelt and Wyandanch.

Five of those schools showed no substantial academic improvement during 2011-12, the latest year on record, according to an analysis last month by the state Education Department. The sixth, Hempstead High, was new to the list and not included in the analysis.

Some district administrators have objected to Cuomo's call for swift action against schools that don't improve students' test scores within a relatively short time.

Those educators note that Albany took over management of the 2,850-student Roosevelt district for 11 years, and that the system's academic status continued to be deemed subpar when the takeover expired in July.

"There will be incremental gain -- that I predict," said Pless Dickerson, superintendent of Wyandanch schools. "But to say we're going to meet these [state academic] standards overnight is unrealistic. Don't set us up for failure."

Wyandanch's Milton Olive Middle School is on the "priority" list.

Local school administrators also said they have taken steps to improve. Central Islip reorganized its Ralph Reed Middle School, also on the list.

Roosevelt recently brought in an experienced new superintendent, Deborah Wortham.

"I feel that, with the new administration we have now, a very well-qualified superintendent, and a well-organized curriculum, we will succeed," said Willa Scott, a Roosevelt school board trustee.

Scott questioned the governor's suggestion that charter-school operators might take over failing public schools, noting that charter-school students on average score about the same as their public school counterparts.

Disappointing results with the state's recent Roosevelt takeover have left some state lawmakers leery of repeating that experience. The state Board of Regents has sought authorization for the past two years to appoint governing panels for failed schools, but the proposals have not gained traction in the State Legislature.

One leading lawmaker on Wednesday indicated a willingness to work with the governor to fashion a plan to deal with failed schools, though he added that the death-penalty phrase "only exacerbates people's emotions."

"I would have chosen my words differently," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's Education Committee. "But that doesn't mean that we can't get something done that's good for everybody."

With Yancey Roy

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