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Albany's Sway Over City Schools

by Jessica Wolff, Jul 01, 2002
 

When it comes to their children's education, New Yorkers must just as often look to Albany as to City Hall to seek solutions or place blame for problems. State lawmakers hold considerable power over city public schools. State laws determine, to a large extent, how schools are governed, funded, staffed, and monitored. The state education department, led by the Board of Regents, (who are elected by the state legislature), and the state education commissioner (who is appointed by the Regents), regulates what students are expected to learn and what requirements they must fulfill in order to graduate from the public school system. So, if you have children in the public schools or care about children in the public schools, you will want to pay close attention to and vote carefully in the forthcoming State Senate, Assembly, and gubernatorial races.

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GOVERNANCE

Albany says who runs the city schools. The governor and state legislature recently wielded their power over the governance of the city schools by amending education law to give substantial control of the schools to the New York City mayor. The new law reduces the authority of the Board of Education and reconfigures it, giving the mayor the authority to appoint a majority of its members. The law gives the city mayor the power to hire and fire the schools chancellor, a responsibility that used to belong to the Board of Education. It also gives the chancellor the sole authority to hire and fire superintendents, a power that used to be shared with elected community school boards. If approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, the new law abolishes the local boards as of June 30, 2003, and establishes a task force to hold public hearings to determine what should replace them.

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Mayoral control of the city schools had been sought by Mayor Bloomberg's predecessors but resisted by Albany until now. Still, the alignment of political forces that led to the current law is tenuous. Perhaps as a result, state lawmakers have hedged their bets with a sunset provision that causes school governance to revert to the previous structure in seven years. At that time, Albany lawmakers will revisit the issue.

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Parental involvement in school governance is also regulated by the state. A 1991 state law to ensure "participation of parents and teachers in school-based planning and shared decision-making" requires a shared decision-making plan from every district statewide. The goal of school-based planning and shared decision-making was "to improve the educational performance of all students in the school regardless of such factors as socioeconomic status, race, sex, or language." New York City did not enforce this law until 1996 when the Board of Education adopted the current plan for school leadership teams. According to the plan, these teams of parents and school personnel are responsible for educational planning and school-based budgeting. The teams have been implemented with various results in schools around the city.

FUNDING

Though the city and the state (and, to a much smaller degree, the federal government) share the costs of the public schools, Albany has a big say in how the schools are funded and how much money the schools get. To start, under state law, New York City is one of five "dependent" school districts. This means that, as in the four other biggest cities in the state, the New York City Board of Education has no power to levy taxes for the public schools. Its budget comes out of the municipal budget, and therefore it must compete for city funds with other essential services like ambulances and garbage pick-up. Elsewhere in the state, the school district budget, and any new local taxes required to fund it, must be approved by a vote of the general public. Besides having considerable control over New York City's ability to generate income through taxes, Albany also has the power to force the city to contribute a certain level of education funding. The new governance law included a "maintenance of effort" provision aimed at preventing the city from reducing its share of education funding.

Albany also determines how state education funding is distributed statewide and how much is budgeted for the schools each year. The governor and the legislature negotiate state education funds as part of the state budget battle each year. Funds are distributed to the various school districts through 40 or so different complicated aid formulas.

The state education finance system has been the target of a lawsuit that has been going on for almost a decade. The suit, brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (which is where I work), charges that the state funding formula is unconstitutional: It does not provide adequate funding to every school district in the state and, as a result, it deprives students in New York City and other underfunded districts around the state of their constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education. The lawsuit alleges that the convoluted formula by which funding is distributed is a sham and that the education budget is driven each year by political deals rather than student needs. The state argues that it does provide sufficient funding and that the education that students are offered meets the constitutional minimal standard.

In January 2001, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the formula violates students' constitutional rights and ordered it to be reformed. In June, an intermediate appellate court reversed that decision. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, will ultimately decide the case. However, both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, have pledged to settle the suit as their first act upon taking office as governor and to undertake a study to assess the actual costs of a sound basic education statewide as the first step in creating a fair funding formula.

The state also shortchanges the city on school construction money, according to the Educational Priorities Panel, a school watchdog group. The group says Albany uses a different formula to determine whether New York City needs a school from the one it uses for districts in much of the rest of the state. As a result, New York City got about $159 per student in building aid from Albany between 1992 and 1999, while the districts in the rest of the state (minus the four other biggest cities) got $347 per student).

STANDARDS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Albany says what requirements students must fulfill and what educational opportunity schools are required to offer. The guiding force for education throughout the state is the Regents Learning Standards. New York's Board of Regents and State Education Department spent over a decade developing this set of statewide learning standards, which were approved in 1996. They describe what students should know and be able to do at each grade level and in order to graduate from high school prepared for further education and the world of work. As standards go, New York's are supposed to be pretty good: New York was one of only two states that received an A grade from Education Week's Quality Counts 2001 for having clear and specific standards in all core academic subjects.

The state also developed a set of exams, supposedly aligned with the standards, designed to assess students' progress and hold them accountable. To ensure that all students are learning the skills that will prepare them for Regents study in high school, fourth- and eighth-grade students take exams in English Language Arts and mathematics. To graduate from high school, all students (starting with the Class of 2004) must pass Regents exams in five subjects: English Language Arts, Mathematics, Global Studies, Science, and U.S. History and Government.

The effects of standardized testing on students and schooling has become increasingly controversial (see "To Test or Not To Test"). Since the new higher graduation requirements, including the Regents exams, were instituted, graduation rates have dropped steadily. Concerned about these controversies, state lawmakers are planning a series of hearings on state education policies this fall.

What educational opportunity must the state offer? It seems reasonable to think that if the state requires schools and students to meet certain standards, the state would be required to ensure them the means to do so. This is not necessarily the case. Because of the disconnect (some say antagonism) between the state legislature and the state education department, Albany is famous for what are called unfunded mandates. That means, for example, that the state education department can require all schools to offer pre-kindergarten to all students who qualify for it or can require schools to limit class sizes in the early grades, and yet the governor and state legislature can cut the funding for these programs after the first or second year without changing the mandate -- both of which happened in recent years.

In the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, the state argued that it is meeting its constitutional obligation to its public school students if all have the opportunity for an eighth- or ninth-grade education. The appellate court agreed, but many believe that a higher standard is both necessary and guaranteed by the state constitution.

Albany also says how school success is monitored. New York's current school accountability system is made up of the System of Accountability for Student Success (SASS) and the Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) Process. A school's SASS rating depends entirely on its students' score on the state-mandated standardized tests given in the fourth grade, eighth grade, and high school. Each year, SASS sets performance targets for each of its schools for the forthcoming three years. This target aims to allow a school to compete against itself in improving its scores. If a school consistently fails to meet its targets or is repeatedly performing below the state standard, SASS has the authority to step in.

The Registration Review Process is the primary method by which New York currently holds "failing" schools accountable for educational performance. Through this process, the state education department identifies a number of the state's lowest-performing schools and then tries to help those schools and the districts that operate them to implement strategies for improving the academic performance of their students. There are currently 100 schools on the SURR list; 77 are in New York City. Some of those schools have been on the list for over a decade.

Not all schools that fail to meet standards are placed on the SURR list. SURR schools are those that are furthest from meeting the state's performance standards as measured on annual standardized tests. Once identified as SURR, a school is eligible for limited extra resources and expert assistance. A corrective action plan is developed in consultation with school staff, parents, community members, and the state education department. A SURR school has up to three full school years to make acceptable progress in improving its academic performance. If the school fails to move its test scores to an acceptable level, the school's registration will be revoked, and the school will be fully redesigned before it is reopened. Only a fraction of the schools where students are performing poorly receive extra assistance, and the amount of assistance received by the 100 SURR schools does not come close to meeting their basic needs. No system exists to ensure that all teachers have been trained in the standards or that all schools are equipped to meet them.

STAFFING

Albany says what requirements prospective teachers must fulfill. The state education department sets certification requirements that spell out what academic preparation, experience, and additional requirements teachers must have to be eligible to teach in the state's public schools. It has increased teacher certification requirements in recent years. By 2004, temporary licenses will be eliminated, and all teachers will need to meet upgraded certification and on-going professional development requirements.

An Albany incumbent is almost guaranteed reelection, partly because few voters recognize the impact of legislators' jobs on their lives. Parents, students, educators, and other concerned citizens need to keep the heat on Albany -- as well as on City Hall and their local schools -- for the education the city's students deserve and on which the city's future depends.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

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