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Friends of public education welcomed the Dec. 18 editorial, "Passing the plate in public," for its warning against instituting a school voucher system in New York State.

Beyond the obvious church-state separation issues, a voucher system would not be "smart social policy when the money would come from struggling public schools that will still have to educate the vast majority of students. Those schools already face financial challenges trying to supply basics like books or heated classrooms."

But I was puzzled in comparing the above statements with an editorial just three days earlier on the School Tax Relief program, "How to steal a tax cut." The News accused school districts -- in fairly insulting language -- of raising spending, or not cutting it, just because STAR provides the opportunity to do so without the normal political repercussions.

In reality, the STAR program -- regardless of how it was billed by some public officials -- had no impact on the costs of running a school district. Education remains a labor-intensive business, and most of the laborers are professionals. Such businesses don't lend themselves to the cost-cutting that technology can bring to, say, a manufacturing enterprise.

Many district budgets reflected long-needed investments in modernizing or replacing aged buildings. The average district health-insurance premium rose 13 percent between 1997 and 1999. Special-education costs, largely mandated by federal and state governments, have raised 46 percent since 1995.

Tutorial and teacher in-service training programs have been added to help ensure both staff and students are prepared to meet the new achievement standards. Summer schools have been expanded for the same purpose, though local resources must largely cover the costs.

Does The News seriously believe that "patronage" and "bureaucracy" are the demons that raise the costs of running public schools? Or is it the very real factors I've cited?

Establishing a friendly environment for business to grow and the economy to prosper is essential. Taxes are important, but so is a properly educated work force. As executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, I believe it would be shortsighted to stint on preparing children to compete in a 21st century economy just to save a few nickles now on the local tax rate.



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