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Time to tighten up; Albany cannot keep overpaying for a mediocre education system

Parents, brace yourselves. Chaos is about to reign in your children's public school. They will be forgotten, left to wither, their young minds fed only television and comic books before boarding the wobbly bus for home. Free periods will be spent hiding in a locker, lest some hungry and underpaid teacher shakes them upside down for their lunch money.

This is not far from the dire future that some special interests are peddling. They bray every year that Albany will pour too few billions into their already well-nourished system. This year, a new governor trying to close a budget deficit measured around $10 billion wants to cut back on school aid and link some portion of it to performance. That's a fine policy, but the teachers unions and administrators would have you believe the sky will fall minutes later.

New York's public education system annually ranks at or near the top when comparing spending per pupil among the states. But the nearly $17,000 now being spent for every student has delivered only middling test results and one of the nation's lowest graduation rates, 70.8 percent, according to one study. If New York were to recede deeper into the nation's top five states in per-pupil spending, it would still have top-flight resources to do its job.

And if it doesn't? Albany could renew the "millionaires tax," but what happens when that option is exhausted? If the staff and brass really care about the students, as they would have you believe, they will economize. New York's more than 700 public school districts, each with its own administrative layer, can and should do more to consolidate and share services. Further, the districts can -- gasp -- reopen teachers contracts for concessions that avoid layoffs, as was done in the private sector in the last recession. Moreover, superintendents can initiate their own searches for the fraud and abuse that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says exist, as he found during his years as attorney general and as the state comptroller has found in a smattering of school districts. The superintendents can question the size of their own compensation packages.

It's no small wonder that Cuomo went on a rant days ago when asked how public schools will cope in the face of cutbacks. He rightly called their howls a political game, a regular bit of theater that portrays children as victims. "This is not about a teacher in the classroom," he said. "This is about less bureaucracy, less administrative overhead, less superintendent salaries, less high salaries for administrators, more efficiency in transportation, more efficiencies in back offices, more efficiencies in payroll."

New York's taxpayers over the decades have more than met their duty to finance their schools. They overwhelmingly approve school budgets and tax increases each year, especially since school bureaucrats long ago conspired with Albany to make it futile to vote down a budget anyway. Taxpayers have provided school systems with reserve funds they can tap to ride out this crisis. But what do taxpayers get in exchange for their sacrifice? Educators who feel entitled to more without appreciating how good they have it. And a school system that collectively delivers average results.

If New York is ever to shake off its ignoble standing as a high-tax state, it has to control the tax money shoveled into public school districts. The proposed tax cap would provide a long-overdue measure of tough love. And this year's budget should spur some long-overdue and serious belt-tightening. New York's public should welcome it as an opportunity rather than a sign of doom.

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