Give this to the governor: He doesn’t shrink from difficult tasks, and none that he has taken on is more challenging than fixing the state’s failing public schools.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared last month that there needed to be a “death penalty” for schools that don’t quickly fix their deficiencies. In a meeting Thursday with The News’ editorial board, he made it clear that wasn’t just a throw-away line.
“What I’m saying on education is, failing schools are not acceptable. Period. It has to end, and it has to end now,” he said. “We need dramatic action, and it’s going to come to a head.”
This from the governor who not only wasn’t afraid to crack heads on the Peace Bridge, at the Seneca Gaming Commission and on the Buffalo waterfront, but who seems to relish it. This governor thrives on solving problems, and the more intractable, the better.
His ideas on fixing education aren’t necessarily new, he said Thursday, but they reflect approaches that haven’t been tried yet in most failing schools. They include such ideas as mayoral control of a school district – a change that could make sense in Buffalo – or even a state takeover. Other ideas include restructuring failing schools as holistic “community schools” or having charter schools take them over.
Cuomo wouldn’t tip his hand on what he has in mind, saying he planned to address the problem in his 2014 State of the State address, four months from now. But he was declarative enough to know that he doesn’t intend to shy away from shaking up a system that flat-out is not working.
Certainly, he has little to lose. Teachers unions, especially the Buffalo Teachers Federation, don’t support him. His insistence on crafting a system for evaluating the performance of teachers made quick work of whatever support he might have had in those quarters.
But those evaluations were critical. Health and education together account for more than half the state’s annual budget, yet there was no system in place to determine whether money for education was being well spent. That would be important in any state, but it is especially so in this one, which spends more money per pupil than any other – and gets generally poor results for its trouble.
Now, that evaluation system – produced only after Cuomo threatened to withhold increases in state aid to education – will be used to help figure out where schools, districts and the state need to focus their attention. There is plenty of room for missteps, so complex are the issues, but it’s a sensible and methodical approach to a problem that cannot be allowed to continue to fester.
We don’t know if Cuomo was thinking especially of Buffalo when he resolved to tackle this issue, but he certainly could have been. The Buffalo School District is the state’s poster child for failure. While it counts nearly 60 facilities, only 12 of its schools are in good standing with the state.
Cuomo is taking on a calcified bureaucracy that values its perpetuation more than it does its product – educated students.
Cuomo may have motives beyond obvious need for taking on this mission. A presidential candidate, if so he intends to be, could do worse than to show the country a governor who stood up to the unions, began a long-term fix to education and put back on its feet a part of the state that didn’t even vote for him.
But who cares? This is a critical issue, and it’s hard to imagine a more difficult test. If he succeeds – and it will take a long time – it will benefit communities, families, students and taxpayers across the state for generations. That seems worth the effort.