Credit: Sara Schwartz Illustration

Gary D. Bixhorn is the chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Long Islanders have again stared down tough economic conditions and voted to increase their already excessive property tax burden to support their schools. On Tuesday, voters in 119 of 124 diverse school districts across our region approved their budgets.

In an environment where the growth in school spending has been repeatedly targeted as the root cause of the tax crisis -- although it is just one of several significant factors -- it is notable that Long Islanders chose to spend more. Why did they do it? Long Islanders have made an extraordinary long-term investment, both economic and emotional, in their schools, and they are doing all that can be done to protect it. Communities across our region recognize that this investment has paid tremendous dividends and that they have benefited.

The primary benefit is that Long Island has established the finest public educational system in the nation. Just look at the facts. In the country's most comprehensive and credible annual study of education, "Quality Counts" by Education Week, New York is ranked second among all states. And, according to data collected by the State Education Department, Long Island students outperform their peers across the rest of New York by every academic measure.

Half of Long Island's high schools are on the list of Newsweek's Top Public Schools, which identifies the best 6 percent of high schools in the country. Twenty percent of the finalists in the prestigious Intel competition routinely come from Long Island schools.

Long Island is truly a rarefied environment when it comes to public education.

So it's easy to understand why Long Islanders continue to support the schools during these tough economic times. But it's also easy to understand that we are far too dependent on property taxes to support our schools; we need to change that. The state funds less than one out of every four education dollars spent here and leaves the rest to property taxpayers. We need to identify a way to preserve the educational services that our communities are willing to sacrifice to provide, and at the same time reduce dependence on property taxes that are the highest in the nation.

There is no question that a tax cap will slow the growth of property taxes. But the 2 percent cap that is currently under consideration -- coupled with the outlook for minimal change in state support -- will force program cuts. Obviously, this is not acceptable to Long Islanders.

A different tax cap, one that is more sensitive to the economic circumstance facing school districts and is imposed after a community has rejected a locally prepared budget, might help. In contrast, the current proposal substitutes a vote on an artificially capped tax levy for a vote on a budget crafted to support an educational program. This greatly diminishes local control, which is the cornerstone of our system.

So what should be done? Rather than focusing all efforts on a cap, the state should turn its attention to a comprehensive finance reform package that provides an appropriate level of support to schools across the state, repeals select costly mandates, closes the gap between rich and poor, and recognizes effectiveness and efficiency.

The Long Island Education Coalition, which represents school boards, PTAs, superintendents, teacher unions and other groups, introduced a legislative package addressing these problems in 2009. That bill -- which called for the state to be less reliant on the foundation formula and partially reimburse costs for special education, pension contributions and employee health insurance -- should be updated, reintroduced, and used to drive the discussion about real reform. Let's start directing our attention to making the changes that will make our system sustainable.

Long Island schools should be targeted by Albany; they should be targeted as models for schools across the state so that all children can enjoy the benefits of a quality education like the vast majority of the children in this region.

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