Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appears to be taking his first concrete step toward having independent school czars take over long-struggling public schools and school districts by asking the state Education Department to research how well such a model is working in Massachusetts.
“Given the preliminary success in Massachusetts, a similar approach could be transformative to Western New York,” top Cuomo aide Jim Malatras wrote in a letter to the state Board of Regents this week.
Such a model would have serious implications for Buffalo Public Schools and other urban school districts, which have a high percentage of schools that are considered failing by state standards.
The “receivership” model, as it’s called, is the most serious category under the Massachusetts accountability system. It allows the state to appoint individuals or nonprofit organizations that would take over individual schools or entire districts. The receiver would serve as a combined superintendent/school board, overriding any existing school boards or local authority over the public schools.
A receiver would have broad authority to hire and fire, ignore union contracts and shut down schools. The Lawrence School District in Massachusetts is the first district to be completely overseen by a state-appointed receiver.
Cuomo previously referred to the Massachusetts model in his State of the State address, in which he outlined a series of education reforms that he would like to make this year. At the time, however, he spoke more broadly regarding possible solutions for school districts considered “failing” for three consecutive years. He stated that the takeover agent could be a nonprofit agency, the mayor, another school district, the state Education Department, or an outside turnaround expert like what Massachusetts has with its receivership model.
He added that he would give additional state money to districts under a new governance model so that failing schools can be transformed into community schools that provide additional outside support to students and their families, such as tutoring, mentorships, after-school programs and community services.
But in his letter to the Board of Regents, it’s clear Cuomo is prioritizing the Massachusetts receivership model as a key school turnaround strategy.
During the governor’s recent visit to Buffalo, he said he had no particular preference as to what type of education reform strategy should occur here, but others see Cuomo’s interest in the receivership model as being aimed directly at Buffalo Public Schools.
“He is definitely looking for the Board of Regents to make his case for him,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the statewide public school advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education. “This is an incredible overreach by the state to take over local school systems, and there’s no question that they have Buffalo in the crosshairs. The governor has made that very clear,” he added.
Cuomo did use the Buffalo school system as an example of a long-failing school district in his State of the State address. However, Regent Robert Bennett said Buffalo would not be the state’s only focus.
“I don’t think it’s just Buffalo, at all,” he said.
He mentioned Rochester, some districts in Long Island, and the East Ramapo school district in Rockland County where a state-appointed fiscal oversight monitor is recommending that the state appoint an agent who would have veto powers over what has been described as gross fiscal mismanagement by a board accused of funneling public money toward private yeshivas where Orthodox Jews send their children.
The East Ramapo school district would be a much higher priority than Buffalo, he said. He also reiterated that any state-sanctioned takeover would be a last resort.
The letter to the Board of Regents asks the state Education Department to conduct comprehensive research “to see how and why the Massachusetts model is working and the specific measures that are making the model a success. On behalf of the governor, we look forward to hearing your results.”
In response, Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins released a statement saying, “We must do everything possible to save students in failing schools from a lifetime of lost opportunity. The receivership model in Massachusetts has shown positive results. A close examination of that model – along with existing turnaround strategies being pursued by the Regents – will help New York develop the right strategies to address schools that consistently fail their students.”
State Ed does not yet have a time line for when research on the receivership model will be completed, Tompkins said.
Easton and other traditional public school supporters, however, said Cuomo is imposing top-down reform methods that have no staying power when it comes to true school reform.
“The research shows that over decades, these top-down interventions don’t end up actually succeeding,” he said. “What does work is when you engage the community from the bottom up.”
Though the Lawrence School District has shown some preliminary improvement since being taken over by a receiver in 2012, Easton said that success is largely due to the personal desire of the receiver to take a more collaborative approach and engage the community in solutions. But that’s no guarantee other handpicked receivers will have the same philosophy or approach.
Other education reform advocates, however, see the governor’s apparent move toward a receivership model as a positive step.
“He has made some of the best arguments for the consequences of doing nothing,” said Samuel Radford III, president of Buffalo’s District-Parent Coordinating Council. “He’s doing something, and he’s doing something with teeth. He’s not talking about moving the furniture around and saying its a different room.”
He then referred to Friday’s special Buffalo School Board meeting, which featured a big dose of yelling, arguments and personal attacks among board members before the ultimate adoption of a resolution regarding four out-of-time schools.
“When they fight like this, the status quo stays the same,” Radford said. “What the governor’s doing is substantive, and that’s what we need right now.”
To read the letter from the Governor’s Office, visit the School Zone blog at wwwl.buffalonews.com/schoolzone.