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Cuomo's education panel hears complaints

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Commission on Education Reform got an earful at a public hearing held at the state Capitol today, as speaker after speaker complained about a statewide school system that they say is in disarray.

Speakers voiced a litany of complaints to the commission, ranging from over-testing of students, excessive teacher bashing, and school districts drowning in debt.

Martin Messner, who heads the Schoharie school teachers union, says his town was hit hard by Hurricane Irene last year, with 80 percent of the buildings damaged or destroyed. He says the school district has also had to suffer from a $1.6 million cut in state aid over the past several years, a significant hit in a $20 million budget, and the number of teachers has shrunk from 123 to 80.  He says those left are continually asked to do more with less.

“Every year it gets worse and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” Messner said.

Messner also complained about what he says is the over-testing of students.

“We see the school being transformed into a testing factory,” he said. “Where students as young as eight are required to spend weeks sitting in chairs, taking what seems to be an endless battery of tests.”

Others took issue with the federal Race to the Top grant money awarded to the state, saying the funds do not cover the full cost of revamping teacher evaluations, devising even more tests, and other requirements.  

Jim Viola, with the School Administrators Association, expressed the concern simply.

“It’s an unfunded mandate,” Viola said.

Bruce Fraser, with the Rural Schools Association, says funding cuts combined with a new property tax cap means many of his member districts are squeezed financially almost to the breaking point.  He says the  court order that required the state to spend billions of more dollars on schools, known as the CFE case, has long  been ignored.  And he says schools have been running though their reserve funds at an alarming rate.

“It’s like using a credit card to stay in business,” said Fraser, who says some districts are headed toward “bankruptcy or insolvency,” though he admits state law makes no provisions for schools to declare bankruptcy.

Cuomo, who appointed most of the members of the commission, has said repeatedly that more money does not necessarily mean better schools. The governor frequently cites the statistic that New York is number one in school spending in the nation, but only ranks 38 in graduation rates.  Many of those who testified expressed anger at those remarks, and say they feel like they are under attack.

Messner, with the Schoharie teachers, says New York’s graduation rates are lower because the state has higher standards. And he says good news about the state’s schools is often buried.  For instance , he says New York was rated first in education geared for business employment by the television news channel MSNBC, second in the number of students who completed advanced placement courses and third in overall performance by Education Week.

“It wasn’t even celebrated, or talked about,” Messner said.

Viola, with the Administrators Association, says there’s been a lot of intense criticism of teachers and principals that he says will drive “the best and the brightest” away from the profession.

“It’s very popular to bash the education system,” Viola said. “And to spin information, in many cases, in a negative direction.”

Others complaints included cutbacks to all-day kindergarten and pre-k programs because of severe funding reductions.

The state’s school boards association asked for elimination of some state rules that they say are costly, and a representative of charter schools says major structural changes are needed, and asked for state funding to follow the student, and not be given directly to the school.

Commission Chairman Richard Parsons, who listened to all of the testimony, says he was not surprised by all of the complaints.

“The purpose of these hearings is not just to pat ourselves on the back,” Parsons said, but to “fix those problems.”

Parsons maintains that there are a lot of positive things going on in the state’s schools, as well.

The commission will issue its final report to the Governor Cuomo in December.