Education Reform Commission Chairman Dick Parsons, pictured above, leads the Commission’s panel discussion at the first regional meeting in Albany. The Commission sought ideas from state experts and the public on public education reform. Photo by courtesy of the Governor’s Office.
July 23, 2012The New York Education Reform Commission discussed ways to improve the structure and functioning of the New York state's public education system during its first regional public meeting in Albany.
Members of the commission heard reform ideas from education administrators, experts, parents and business leaders who pressed the commission to examine the need for universal statewide pre-kindergarten, teacher retention, school funding formulas and remediation programs as ways to prepare young students for success.
The first regional meeting was held Monday, July 10, 2012. Three working groups were established, each designed to address major reform issues: public school system structure; administration quality and leadership; and student achievement.
Kate Breslin, president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, and Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, both strongly recommend early care and education programs. Breslin specifically cited the ages of birth to age 8 as critical in educational development, and especially endorsed pre-kindergarten readiness programs, particularly for children in low-income areas.
Breslin said 1 in 4 New York children live in poverty; and that 1 in 3 are already behind academically by age 3. She cited socioeconomic circumstances as a predictor of future academic performance. Breslin said pre-kindergarten programs have been proven to bridge these gaps; and that they can make these children "more likely to succeed in school and in life." However, Breslin said, despite this success, the funding for these programs has been cut dramatically in recent years.
Martin Messner, president of the Schoharie Teacher's Association – and the only working teacher to testify – expressed his hope that administrators, teachers, parents and the community could work jointly to improve the school system. He delivered a powerful statement about how dramatic budget cuts and layoffs have damaged teacher morale – which he describes as at "rock-bottom" – to the point that many good teachers discuss leaving the profession. Responding to the frequently-repeated statement that New York state ranks third in student spending but falls at 39th in high school graduation rates, Messner countered that New York state has higher graduation requirements than other states.
"We could be number one, just by lowering standards," Messner said, noting New York's higher academic standards. He added that New York state successes, such as having a finalist in the 2012 Intel Science Competition, are often ignored.
Nearly all speakers cited reduction and inequities in state aid, program underfunding, teacher layoffs, administrator and teacher retention challenges, and teacher-student ratios as critical need issues.
John Reilly, board president of Albany's KIPP Tech Valley Charter School, said, "The money should follow the student."
Several other speakers agreed that administrators should make student-focused decisions whenever possible; and that revision of the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law - which keeps labor agreements in place until a new agreement is reached, even after contracts have expired, which results in automatic pay increases - would help empower districts to lower costs. District consolidation was also discussed as a potential solution for districts lacking in resources, particularly in rural areas.
Hudson Valley Community College President Andrew Matonak discussed the potential result of inefficient academic preparation: the need for remediation. Matonak said that $70 million in state aid is spent on remediation, and that 20 percent of financial aid is spent on remedial courses. He said that a student who needs remedial instruction has a much lower success rate than one who does not; early intervention is crucial in avoiding this result. Matonak recommended the implementation of statewide college readiness exams, system-wide standardized SUNY writing and math courses, and high school programs that proactively assist students in college preparation.
Matonak said, "Community colleges are critical for educating our workforce." He strongly advocated preventing remediation as both a fiscal and student success solution.
The Commission's members include Chairman Richard Parsons, senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, L.L.C., and former Citigroup and Time Warner executive; John Flanagan, R-East Northport, chair of the Senate Education Committee; Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, chair of the Assembly Education Committee; Dr. John B. King, commissioner, New York State Department of Education and
President, University of the State of New York; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO; and Nancy Zimpher, State University of New York chancellor.
Zimpher, in her January 9 State of SUNY Address, said, "We cannot do this alone, but rather with our partners in early childhood and K-12—all working together—we can end the need for remediation on college campuses in the next decade."
Reception to the new Commission has been largely positive. Matt Smith, spokesman for New York State Union of Teachers, said, "We believe that this commission represents an opportunity to enhance the quality of education and the teaching profession, and NYSUT looks forward to working with the committee."
Nikki Jones, Communications Director for the Alliance for Quality Education, said she is certain yesterday's stories about the current educational crisis will be echoed across the state, as the Commission holds more meetings. However, Jones expressed concern that the Commission promote these meetings more effectively. She stressed the importance of clearly posting meeting specifics in advance, so that the public is able to take advantage of this important opportunity to express their opinions and concerns.
The Commission's final public meeting is in October 2012; it is expected to submit preliminary recommendations to the governor by December 2012.