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Spitzer wants rise in funding for schools Record increase reliant on better accountability

The state should provide a record increase in aid to public schools this year, but only in return for accountability standards that reward districts for improving student performance and penalize officials who preside over failing schools, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer proposed Monday.

"From now on, our children and schools should not be the only ones receiving report cards," Spitzer told the state's education leaders of a wide-ranging plan he will include as part of the 2007 budget proposal he will unveil Wednesday.

The governor said he will sharply increase funding to districts, but only if they agree to the terms of what he termed a "contract of excellence" that will dictate how the new funds can be spent. Buffalo, along with upstate's other major urban districts, is expected to be eligible for a major infusion of additional state aid this year if it agrees on the new accountability standards -- and if the State Legislature goes along with the plan.

In return for the new money, schools would be encouraged to take steps that research has shown improve student performance, including reducing class sizes, keeping students in school longer each year and giving financial incentives to teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools or who teach math, science or special education or whose schools improve performance.

The governor also called for a sharp increase in the number of charter schools, universal prekindergarten programs and a change in how teacher tenure is awarded to strengthen what school executives have long complained is an almost automatic right.

The new governor warned of consequences for districts that fail to improve student learning.

"Money can no longer be an excuse for failing our children anywhere in the state. Now, if children fail, adults must be held accountable," he said in the speech to the state Board of Regents and other top education officials.

Much of his speech offered only vague glimpses into his education proposal. It will become clearer Wednesday with the release of his 2007 state budget proposal.

Though he did not say which or how many districts will be eligible, Spitzer said his plan would require every district that sees an annual state aid increase of at least $15 million, or 10 percent more than the previous year, to devise a plan that shows how a certain set of educational criteria -- such as improving graduation rates or raising the number of students reading at grade level -- are met. Schools that fail to agree won't get the extra money.

For those failing to meet the standards over a period of time, which Spitzer did not outline, he proposed "real consequences." First, the state would intervene with outside "distinguished educators" and other assistance to get a failing school to improve its performance. If that does not work, new language that would be part of contracts with superintendents would permit their dismissal, while the state would have an easier time removing a school board that oversees failing districts.

Spitzer proposed new "leadership report cards" to judge the effectiveness of superintendents and other school leaders. For teachers, Spitzer was less clear about his accountability plans, though he talked of making the granting of tenure tied partly to student performance.

"We must ensure that tenure comes to be recognized as something we as a society honor and respect, and that means it should be granted the way other professional decisions are made," Spitzer said of a series of methods in which tenure should be judged.

But he was forceful in making clear that superintendents and school boards are more in his line of fire to increase accountability.

"I would have loved to see him dig a little deeper on accountability," said Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams, who attended the Spitzer speech and praised his overall plan for overhauling the education system. "We need accountability for classroom teachers also." He said tenure now is accomplished in New York "by sitting in a seat for three years."

"I definitely see a change in practice," Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills said of his knowledge of Spitzer's teacher tenure plans. He said considerations such as student performance now can be a factor in determining tenure. "But what the governor is saying is: It has to be done."

In one of his most ambitious plans, Spitzer attacked the long-standing and highly secretive process by which a complex formula is used each year to determine funding for individual school districts. It has been criticized as being used to drive more money to schools in certain legislative districts.

Spitzer said he will propose a new "straightforward and transparent" funding formula that will "distribute educational funding based on the needs of our children, not the needs of our politicians." Already in the middle of a couple of major battles with the Legislature, Spitzer lashed out at what he called the past practice of writing school funding formulas that are artificially "manipulated to produce predetermined results" instead of meeting "the needs of our children."

Williams, the Buffalo superintendent, said he welcomes Spitzer's push for greater accountability and changes such as a longer school day and extra aid to poorer districts such as Buffalo. "It's a big challenge," Williams said of getting the entire plan approved.

Indeed, to earmark a huge increase to lower-performing schools would mean less aid growth to a politically potent group: suburban schools. Spitzer aides said a long-standing court case that the state lost was all about driving more state money to high-needs districts; they also said no school will see a cut in operating aid for this year.

The governor said the education plans will go forward at the same time he wants the state to begin a plan to cut property taxes by $6 billion over the next several years.

"What pleases my ears is that accountability will start at the top. Very often, it starts at the bottom," Richard Iannuzzi, union president of New York State United Teachers, said of Spitzer's plan that holds superintendents and other school leaders accountable for improving student performance.

The union thinks that some of Spitzer's ideas -- such as giving incentive pay for certain teachers -- will likely require approval at the local school level as part of collective-bargaining agreements.

The governor proposed increasing the number of charter schools -- now capped at 100, a level already reached -- to 250.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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