Editorial: Teacher evaluations usually not 'unfunded'

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Check our listings of delayed openings, closures and cancellations to see what's in store for Friday. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

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School districts throughout New York are complaining that the new evaluation system for teachers and principals is creating a fiscal burden they can't handle. They're calling it another of the "unfunded state mandates" administrators complain about so often. It is a mandate, but it's not unfunded, or expensive, and the whining says more about the education establishment than the costs.

This year total state spending was slated to go down a bit, but state aid to schools increased almost 4 percent, to about $20 billion.

In Yonkers, for example, the district is getting a bump of $9.5 million in state aid, but the superintendent there fears that money -- and much more totaling $17 million -- could be lost if it doesn't submit an evaluation plan on time.

Some districts will spend more on the new evaluation process than their stipends from the state increase this year. They are mostly tiny districts and affluent ones. But a broad majority of districts across the state are receiving state funding increases far in excess of what they will spend on the evaluation system. To be sure, districts are facing financial challenges, thanks to the property tax cap and spiraling pension and benefits expenses. In addition, state aid to schools is bouncing back, but it's still lower for more than 80 percent of the state's districts than at its high, in 2008.

The state sends a lot of money to school districts, and in that sense, none of its mandates are unfunded. And the costs of implementing this evaluation system aren't enough to justify the kinds of cuts to instruction that administrators are threatening. In addition, many districts are receiving federal Race to the Top grants, to help defray some of the costs. And some of the money districts are spending, on computer programs and computer tablets to be used in the evaluation process, weren't mandated by the state and aren't strictly necessary.

As of Monday, more than 615 school districts throughout the state had submitted evaluation plans, but only 253 have been approved, according to the State Education Department. In the Hudson Valley, more than half, or 47 school districts, still don't have approved plans. Districts including Yonkers and Harrison in Westchester County, East Ramapo and North Rockland in Rockland County, and Rhinebeck and Pawling in Dutchess County are among districts that still haven't submitted plans for consideration.

The state Education Department says its website contains many evaluation plans that districts should be able to adopt and implement without creating additional costs. Other experts argue that's not quite true, and liken using a prefab Education Department evaluation system to using a form-letter prenuptial agreement: Both have to be adapted at least somewhat to satisfy the involved parties.

But assuming -- or hoping -- districts had rigorous evaluation protocols already in place, the new system should also create a savings by letting districts drop their old ones. It's certainly reasonable to believe the new systems may cost a little more; it's just not reasonable to argue the expense is unfunded, or sizable in relation to district budgets.

In most cases, district complaints about the expense of the new teacher evaluation system aren't justified, and their tendency to attack evaluations at every turn is getting tiresome.

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