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Results of school elections make clear the growing influence of teacher unions

As a man once famously said, there’s something happening here. From Western New York to Albany, the face of public education is changing, and there is reason to worry that it’s not for the better.

In Buffalo two weeks ago and now this week in Williamsville and Ken-Ton, teachers or candidates they backed won election to the local school board. That, in itself, is not the trouble; teachers, after all, have some expertise in the matter of educating children.

The problem is in the real concern that these victories are the product of union activism, including efforts by New York State United Teachers, which has been aggressive in its largely successful efforts to strangle progress toward education reform in New York.

That effort has worked its way through the entire education hierarchy, including the state Board of Regents, whose membership has changed as members of the State Assembly timidly fell in line with the teachers unions.

Even the new chancellor of the Board of Regents, Betty A. Rosa, all but counseled parents to opt their children out of state assessments that are needed to measure not just how well children are learning, but how well teachers, schools and districts are instructing. That’s alarming.

The next logical fear is that the new chancellor and Regents will pull the rug out from under Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, hired only last year to continue the reform work pushed by her predecessor, John B. King Jr., now U.S. secretary of education. Like King, Elia has provided welcome attention to the Buffalo School Board, which needs all the help it can get as it struggles to provide even an acceptable education to the city’s students.

Now the local teachers unions, sometimes in conjunction with NYSUT, are angling to influence or control everything from the kinds of contracts they approve, how or if teacher evaluations are implemented and the way student testing is organized. It’s a clear conflict that holds the potential to undermine education in New York.

It wasn’t all bad news, as voters across Erie and Niagara counties approved the budgets with which they were presented. Much of that was no doubt based on New York State’s record increase in education funding this year – an action that raises its own difficult issues – but the fact is that when school budgets are defeated, they do little to lower costs while still managing to penalize students. It’s not automatically bad news that these school district budgets were approved, given the nature of the system.

But the troubling fact is that New Yorkers pay more for education, pupil for pupil, than any other state and, for that, get results that are only middling. So, when voters approve these budgets they are also, tacitly and maybe even reluctantly, supporting a system that is simultaneously abusing their bank accounts and failing their children.

Voters do the same when they elect state representatives who not only agree to spend significantly more on education, but out-and-out insist on it, and without any similar requirement that the increased support translate in some definable way into improved education. State representatives seem to care more about the unions who could help or hurt their re-election campaigns than they do about students who are not of voting age.

Voters and taxpayers should watch over the coming weeks and months to see how these new school boards perform. The key question will be: Where do their loyalties lie?

Voters should also keep an eye on Albany to see what happens to Elia, the best hope New Yorkers across the state have right now for improving their children’s educations and their prospects for success in life. And they should demand that their school leaders care about that.