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Cuomo’s proposals to revamp education put focus on the shortchanged children

When it comes to public education, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is just what New York has needed for decades. He understands the issues and, with this week’s State of the State address, proposed far-reaching reforms to address them.

It will be a hard fight to get the Legislature to pass some of them. In both chambers, but especially in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, many members are more devoted to the teachers unions than they are to their own constituents. They think that in the state that pays more per student than any other, the answer to improved education is simply more money.

But, as Cuomo bluntly noted, “We’ve been putting more money into the system every year for decades, and it hasn’t changed.” At some point, it becomes important to take note of that fact.

Adequate funding is obviously crucial to a strong education, but once funding is there – and there is a strong case to be made that, in this state, it is there – other factors become more urgent. So it is in New York and, as Cuomo observed, it is especially so in Buffalo, where the state pays $16,000 per student, double the state average and 33 percent more than the $12,000 average for a high-needs district. Financially speaking, at least, that makes Buffalo a disastrous district.

Among the actions Cuomo proposed in his reform program are:

• Reducing the power of unions and local school districts in determining how teachers and principals are evaluated.

• Toughening the requirements for new teachers to achieve tenure.

• Toughening the evaluation system and rewarding teachers who are rated “highly effective” with bonuses of $20,000. He would also make it easier to remove those who aren’t performing well. Under that proposed new system, state assessments would count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, rather than the current 20 percent.

• Establishing higher standards for new teachers and paying tuition for top candidates at State University of New York teacher education programs who commit to teaching in New York for five years.

• Allowing more charter schools across the state and handing over failing public schools to turnaround experts. Buffalo could be a prime candidate if the district’s new leadership can’t show improvement soon. The competition from charters and the threat of takeovers will help to create pressure for districts to get serious about improving their performances.

• Expanding prekindergarten to 3-year-olds and creating a new tax credit for donations to education groups, including scholarship programs for public and private schools.

These are, as Cuomo acknowledged, far-reaching reforms and they will be heavy lifts in the Legislature. But Cuomo, crafty as ever, also set out a lure: He would agree to increase education funding by 4.8 percent, or $1.1 billion, if his reform agenda is adopted. Otherwise, his goal is to restrict the increase to $377 million, or 1.1 percent.

It’s an acceptable trade, even though New York already overspends on education. If it produces the kinds of reforms Cuomo is seeking, it will be worth the cost many times over in the coming years and decades.

Changes in teacher evaluations and tenure rules will be among the hardest changes to make, but they are essential in a state that pays so much for education while producing comparatively poor results. “Who are we kidding, my friends?” Cuomo said in his address. “The problem is clear, and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.”

Accurate and fair are the keys, of course, and as is the case today, the initial goal of evaluations must be to help poor teachers improve, and helping them out the door only if they don’t show development.

What is most important to remember is that as crucial as teachers and principals are to the education of New York’s students, it is the needs of those students that must drive the policy. That hasn’t been the case in New York, but it needs to be now.