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10th November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 10, 2006

By Andy Wolf

Near the top of everyone’s to-do list for Governor-elect Spitzer is the issue of funding education. That is, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Although he pledged a generous settlement while on the campaign trail, nobody knows better than the attorney general the validity of the arguments on the other side. As the state’s lawyer, he led, at least technically, the defense against the litigation. Mr. Spitzer is a smart man, so hopefully this experience has not been lost on him. More dollars do not translate directly into better educational outcomes.

If there are solutions to fixing what is wrong with education, the solutions will have to be found at the state level. Unlike most other industrialized nations, which have national educational systems and uniform standards, in America it is the individual states that are charged with running schools. All of the local school districts, including our own here in Gotham exist under the rules and supervision of the state Education Department.

One would therefore expect that Mr. Spitzer is rolling up his sleeves getting ready to put some of the same energy into fixing education that he put into finding supposed miscreants lurking in the boardrooms of Wall Street. The trouble is, other than having to worry about coming up with more cash to pay for it, the governor is pretty much out of the education loop. The power to influence the direction of the schools of the Empire State lies not with the governor, but with the speaker of the Assembly.

This is because the state education commissioner is not named by the executive, but by the Regents. And the Board of Regents is currently appointed by, you guessed it, Sheldon Silver. The state constitution calls for the regents to be elected by the combined membership of the Assembly and state Senate. Since the Assembly has many more members than the Senate, and the Assembly Democratic majority is particularly lopsided, it is the speaker who ends up choosing the regents.

Make no mistake about it. There is a crisis in education in New York State. It will not be fixed by all of the good intentions of the mayor, who now has broad powers over city schools, or by the hard work of scores of uncompensated local school boards across the state. They are ruled by guidelines and restrictions established by state officials.

What results are state standards that for all the high sounding rhetoric comes down to nothing more than creating the illusion of improvement by dumbing down standardized tests. There are some fine members of the Board of Regents, but overall, the regents are so afraid that real standards and real tests will reflect poorly on their political masters that they refuse to make the painful decisions that can create a climate for change. The problem is that our children, given just one chance to receive a quality education, can’t wait.

We can’t fix the schools unless we have accurate data to define the problem, and standardized testing in New York is a particular disaster. The federally mandated testing in grades three to eight is inflated when compared with performance on benchmark tests. High school regents exams are often marked using awkwardly steep curves to deceptively maximize the pass rate, and the tests at all levels are filled with errors. New York is at the bottom of all states when it comes to the timely provision of test results. Parents have just received the grades their children earned on the English Language Arts test for grades three to eight administered nearly a year ago, in January.

Clearly something is amiss at the state Education Department when it comes to testing. But it won’t be fixed by advertising for a new state testing director to be paid the paltry salary of $94,543 a year, less than a New York City teacher at maximum earns under the new contract and much less than teachers earn in some suburban districts. Top-flight people usually don’t work at bargain-basement rates.

The mindset at the state Education Department is wrong from top to bottom. If Mr. Spitzer is as serious as fixing education as he seems to be about throwing more money at it, high on his agenda will be a demand of the speaker for some control over the Board of Regents. In this quest he may find an ally in the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, who has also been shut out. The regents are too important to be left in the hands of one man who represents only 1/150th of the state population. It is time to bring a broad spectrum of New Yorkers to the educational table. Maybe then we’ll have a state Education Department and commissioner capable of setting guidelines to spend better before we burden taxpayers unnecessarily by spending more.
© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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