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LI educators applaud Cuomo's added-class-time plan

Lorna Lewis is the superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage

Lorna Lewis is the superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a board member of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (March 9, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island school leaders Thursday welcomed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's call for extending class time -- a move that could help New York State match academic calendars in such countries as Australia, Britain and Japan.

Local educators aren't betting, however, on the governor's chances of finding money for any substantial increases in class hours statewide.

"Slim or none," said Jim Kaden, president of South Huntington's school board and a past head of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

"Given our financial challenges, the chances are zilch," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a board member of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Lewis, in a phone interview, noted that many Island school districts are struggling just to preserve existing student services while keeping within the state's 2 percent cap on property taxes. Cuomo pushed through that cap in 2011, his first year as governor.

"So how could we ever extend the school day?" Lewis said.

On Wednesday, in his State of the State message, Cuomo muted earlier calls to curb taxes, contending that goal had largely been realized. Instead, the governor focused on proposed new services, including longer class hours for pre-kindergartners and older students alike.

Like a long line of government leaders before him, Cuomo suggested that the traditional September to June school calendar was an outdated relic of the 19th century, when rural children spent summers tending crops.

"We cannot continue to run our schools under agrarian and factory conditions," he declared.

Cuomo proposed that the state pick up full costs for school districts willing to extend class time at least 25 percent. Such an initiative -- if adopted statewide -- could easily add billions in extra costs to the $58 billion already spent on public education each year.

Any such increase appears wildly impractical, experts say. The governor's own aides acknowledge the state will be hard-pressed just to provide a school-aid increase of about $700 million projected to meet inflationary costs in 2013-14.

Cuomo's message hinted that any extensions in class time will be limited. As a model, the governor cited an Expanded Learning Time Initiative in Massachusetts that has reportedly raised test scores there -- but only in 19 schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Cuomo also proposed a new bar-like exam for teachers -- more rigorous than state tests now in place and under revision. Teacher representatives including Kevin Coyne, president of the 1,200-member Brentwood teachers union, said they favored the concept but were awaiting further details.

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