Protesters rallied against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently as he headlined a Suffolk Democratic dinner in Holbrook. The demonstrators -- predominantly schoolteachers -- were in part driven by their opposition to the 2 percent property tax cap (actually 1.46 percent this year). If protests like this one lead to a reform of state mandates, then the property tax cap will be a great success.
The cap is already working, though. School districts are increasingly staying within the cap and fewer are attempting to pierce it. Teacher contracts are coming more in line with private-sector realities, and the state has increased school aid.
These are positive indicators, but a wholesale solution will only come about when we comprehensively reform inefficient and ineffective state laws (mandates). Once tougher contract negotiations and school board and administrative creativity have been exhausted, expenses will continue to rise because of the state's heavily mandated education system. State aid will not continue to rise at the levels we have seen and the pressure on schools, administrators and teachers will grow unsustainably. Mandate reform is the only long-term answer.
New York has the highest per-student spending in the nation and the highest property taxes. I ran for governor against Eliot Spitzer in 2006 on a property tax cap platform. He won. I later served as chairman of the state Commission on Property Tax Relief under Spitzer and, following him, Gov. David A. Paterson. The commission found that there were only three choices to address the never-ending spending increases in schools:
One, the schools could continue increasing property taxes (that was unacceptable, hence the cap).
Two, the state could increase aid (difficult in the decreasing state revenue climate of 2008 and today's economy).
Three, schools could cut spending or at least the rate of growth of expense (but that will only happen with efforts to reform state mandates).
Slowing down or reversing expense growth is most logical because we spend more per student than any other state and our academic results are below average. We must change the mandates that require too much bureaucracy and form filing. Mandates make collaboration and consolidation too onerous. Special education is regulated with more than 200 mandates over what the federal government requires. The state mandates everything from what should be taught, to how teachers should be trained, to class size and the kind of equipment used. Many mandates should be changed to guidelines giving school districts the freedom to deliver better results with less cost. Schools that fail to perform could be given extra help to improve, but the yoke would be lifted on 90 percent of school districts, resulting in lower costs and better outcomes.
None of the changes is easy. Every mandate was implemented with good intention and strong support. Unfortunately, we are spending too much and the mandates have created an unworkable behemoth. Reform will require the attention of the state's elected officials, school administrators, school boards, teachers unions and parents.
State legislators, the governor's staff and the Board of Regents need to design comprehensive reforms that help students and protect taxpayers. They will have to explore best practices of states that spend less and get better results. Only the powerful and politically astute teachers and the powerful and politically astute governor can bring everyone to the table.
This most recent protest will be the first of many as we get into the fall political season, but it just might be the start of a process that will benefit all of us.