Frustration over the state’s education policies looms large in Tuesday’s local school district elections.
Standardized tests, state aid givebacks, teacher evaluations and school mandates from Albany are top concerns for dozens of people running for seats on area school boards.
“High-stakes testing linked to the Common Core is shackling students and teachers alike,” said Heather L. Sternin, a retired special-education teacher running for a School Board seat in the City of Tonawanda. “I’m concerned that creativity in the classroom will take a back seat to test preparation and drill.”
The Buffalo News invited the 132 candidates running for 83 seats in 37 schools districts in Erie and Niagara counties to describe the top issues facing their schools and to explain whether they thought public education in New York is heading in the right direction.
Ninety-eight responded. You can read their full submissions at schoolzone.buffalonews.com.
A solid majority – nearly four out of every five candidates who responded – were not pleased with the direction the state is taking public education. Their reasons were varied, and many felt that their local schools were performing well.
Some candidates described “excessive testing” as the primary problem. Others felt that state budget cuts that reduced promised funding to schools in recent years have eroded local programs. Many were upset about the loss of local control over educational decisions.
“As government continues to whittle away at local control, the hands of school boards are increasingly tied by mandates and legislation that restrict their capacity for change,” wrote Carol A. Nowak, an associate professor of psychology at Hilbert College who is running for her fourth term on the Sweet Home School Board.
Local issues are important, too.
The two Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda candidates, Andrew S. Gianni and Stephen G. Brooks, cited the district’s coming consolidation as a top priority.
Three candidates for two seats in East Aurora, MaryBeth Covert, Kimberlee L. Danieu and Douglas S. Crow, were particularly concerned about ensuring that the school district gets an equal share of state aid.
Two candidates for a board seat in Holland, Gerald J. Vella and Janel L. Burke, cited community anger over the closure of the district’s middle school.
Issues varied by school district, but there were common themes throughout the candidate responses.
State aid, standardized tests, teacher evaluations and the state’s learning benchmarks, known as Common Core, came up again and again. Many candidates also felt that the state had unfairly stripped local school districts of needed state aid in recent years.
“The future of Frontier students is being threatened by New York State’s reckless attempt to rebrand education to meet a number of political and privately funded agendas,” said Larry J. Albert, a retired teacher who has served on the Frontier School Board for 10 years and is seeking re-election.
Albert faulted Common Core testing and a state budget calculation, known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which has siphoned promised state aid from districts, for “causing the individualization of education to crumble.” Like a few others, he also blamed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch.
While candidates frequently criticized tests aligned to the Common Core Learning Standards, they provided nuanced views on the effectiveness of the learning standards. Some felt that higher standards were needed, but lamented the widely criticized rollout of the new benchmarks in schools and how quickly the state began testing students on the new material.
“I think the standardized testing and the Common Core curriculum have caused some difficulties, and because of this, the system is kind of wavering,” wrote Thomas W. Fiegl, a retired police officer who is running for re-election on the Lockport School Board. “The districts don’t know how to react to it.”
Alden candidate Jill M. Hopcia said Common Core “is not the problem” but expressed deep concern about using tests tied to the new standards as the primary way to evaluate teachers.
“There are so many factors influencing students in school: socioeconomics, family dynamics, environmental factors, attendance, social issues – these heavily influence a child’s ability to perform in the classroom,” said Hopcia, who is president of the Alden School Board and a fourth-grade teacher in the Sweet Home district. “Teachers should be praised, not punished.”
More than a third of the candidates who responded cited concern about using the test scores to evaluate teachers.
The issue galvanized parents and teachers this spring and helped fuel a protest movement to opt children out of the assessments after Cuomo and state lawmakers increased the importance of standardized test results in a new teacher evaluation system.
“Too much focus is put on these ‘tests,’ ” wrote Cheryl L. Wentland, a Head Start teacher running for the first time in Newfane. “Tests do not always show a student’s true abilities, and to rely on said test to grade teachers is unjust.”
While candidates across the region wanted to see changes in state education policies, several also saw the increased debate over the future of education as positive for local schools.
“I think public education is heading in the right direction now that there is increased dialogue among stakeholders regarding student achievement,” wrote David M. Sheff, a human resources professional hoping to retain his seat on the Depew School Board. “A more collaborative model for public education versus a ‘top down’ approach is what’s necessary for prolonged student success at all levels.”