OPINION: What Cuomo can do to improve schools

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Marc Bernstein is superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District.

Increasing pressure for a property tax cap and the promise of New York's incoming governor, Andrew Cuomo, that next year's budget will contain no new taxes mean that schools may find their two primary sources of revenue - state aid and property taxes - significantly reduced for the 2011-12 school year. They will have to become more efficient or, alternatively, severely cut student programs and services.

This follows the spring 2010 statewide test scores, which were lower in both math and language arts. One expects the new governor to demand improvement, regardless of there being less money.

If the governor is going to expect greater efficiency and improved performance while providing fewer dollars, he's going to need to do three things: implement immediate relief from state-imposed requirements so schools can allocate their limited resources more efficiently; exact changes to existing law to foster greater accountability from all adults involved in education; and overhaul the paradigm of school governance.

Last week, the Board of Regents reduced the number of times speech services must be provided to special education students. That's a minor first step toward mandate relief. Other avenues to explore, especially when evidence is lacking, include expanding the number of students served in special education resource rooms from five to six, seven or eight, and, in this Internet age, eliminating the antiquated requirement that all high schools have at least one full-time librarian and a minimum number of books.

The governor should charge a transition team with immediately considering which state requirements should be abolished, thus permitting school districts - which are the accountable entities to their communities - to use their fewer state aid tax dollars in the most efficient ways, based on their own communities' priorities.

Too many laws limit schools' ability to demand effective teaching. For example, current law requires recently hired teachers to acquire 35 hours per year of continuing education, yet practically all of these hours can be met through mere attendance at existing conference days and faculty, grade-level or departmental meetings. And teachers with more than five years experience have no such continuing education requirement at all.

Similarly, the statute that grants life tenure for both teachers and administrators after only three years must be updated to address the ever-increasing demand for educators to become more accountable for student achievement. School boards should have at least six years to evaluate their professional staff before deciding whether to award life tenure.

No meaningful improvement in long-term educational effectiveness can occur without changes in school governance, beginning with the consolidation of New York's more than 700 school districts - with 124 right here on Long Island. In many cases, consolidation will improve educational opportunities as well as save money. Since many individuals on the local level - especially parents of current students - probably won't support school consolidation, the state must act.

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Of even greater significance is the issue of who, on the state level, is responsible and accountable for the success of the public schools. It is incredible that accountability for student success rests with no one elected official. Instead, the Board of Regents - an amorphous 15-member body whose members are appointed by the legislature - makes education policy. One can agree or disagree with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's education agenda, but no one questions who is accountable to the voters.

It's time for New York to place responsibility for K-12 education with the governor through a commissioner of education that he appoints, not the Regents. That way, someone is accountable. Such a change would provide a needed link between the governor's decisions regarding financing schools and student performance.

If Cuomo is to be held accountable for both correcting the state's finances and improving education within New York State, he must act now.


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