Education is a hot topic in Albany, and newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer’s aggressive education reforms are a decent first start. For 12 years, Governor George Pataki was a one-trick pony: charter schools were his single big idea, and the rest of his educational agenda largely consisted of a clumsy attempt to avoid settling the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s gigantic lawsuit, while still giving up enough in annual school aid to keep suburban districts and the teachers’ unions at bay.
In contrast, the Spitzer plan adopted this year, though not perfect, is innovative and intellectually coherent: more money for “underfunded” urban districts; greater accountability through a revamped assessment system that measures the growth in individual students’ gains; and an incentive plan for districts to dedicate more resources to strategies that the governor believes will drive higher achievement. These include expanding pre-K, moving toward full-day kindergarten, reducing class sizes, and restructuring troubled middle schools and high schools. The governor would also encourage more choice by doubling the number of authorized public charter schools.
The few weaknesses in Spitzer’s plan are largely the result of political compromises made to get his plan through the state legislature. One little-noticed provision in the plan, for instance, only applicable to New York City, authorizes the state’s commissioner of education to set class sizes in the city. It results from a compromise that the governor struck with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the United Federation of Teachers, which sought to mandate specific class-size numbers in the legislation. Instead, the commissioner, after consulting with a panel of experts, will determine class sizes.
This politically inspired arrangement could divert billions of school dollars to a single reform—class-size reduction—that has scant basis in academic research, reducing funds available for more promising reforms in the city, such as Mayor Bloomberg’s and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s shift to principal autonomy and school-based performance contracts. By forcing the chancellor and the city’s principals to hire tens of thousands of underqualified teachers to fill the extra classrooms, the mandate could also hurt academic results. In fact, research published by the Rand Corporation revealed that California’s statewide rush to lower class sizes reduced the quality of classroom instruction and drove up construction costs to boot. The commissioner should tread carefully here.
The biggest omission in Spitzer’s plan, though, is its failure to link results to consequences. Under the revamped assessment system, we will know which schools succeed or fail, but schools will continue to get the same funding regardless of how they perform. A more sensible approach, implemented successfully in Florida under Governor Jeb Bush, is to grade each school, reward the high-performing ones with additional resources, and make the low-performing ones face greater competition. Until a recent court decision, parents in low-performing Florida districts could transfer their children to private schools and get state-funded scholarships, too. New York is perversely rewarding failure by giving more money to bad schools and less to good ones.
Additionally, New York needs to expand parent-choice options much more dramatically than Spitzer was able to in the recent legislative session. Doubling the number of charter schools sounds nice, but it means just 100 more of them—which is trivial in a state the size of New York. Hundreds of thousands of New York children are currently attending schools officially designated as failing. Mayors in Gotham and other large cities in New York should have the authority to issue an unlimited number of charters, so that these kids have alternatives.
Statewide, parents should receive an education tax credit that lets them send their children to the private or public schools of their choice. During the campaign, Spitzer enthusiastically endorsed education tax credits, but he has since wavered. In his executive budget, he offered a much more modest tax deduction, worth on average only $80, which then disappeared during budget negotiations.
Problems remain, then, with Spitzer’s historic education reforms. But he has pushed the reforms through so swiftly that there’s hope he can still make the necessary fixes. If he can, he’ll have done New York’s schoolchildren a great favor.