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Viewpoints: New York’s public schools excel in many different ways

By Jeffrey M. Bowen

The beginning of the new school year encourages everyone to put his or her best educational foot forward. Our children experience excitement while their parents often breathe a sigh of relief, but want assurance that the quality of their children’s learning will remain strong and uncompromised. Generally, community residents look for evidence that their investment of tax revenue will yield the best possible results. Fortunately, there is convincing proof that New York’s public schools meet all of these expectations.

Governance and accountability are good starting points. New York governs education mainly across two related layers of control – state and local. At the state level, our Legislature and the Board of Regents adopt laws and regulations that arguably make New York the most educationally mandated state in the nation. State aid to schools amounts to some $25 billion annually, about a quarter of the state’s budget. State revenue sources account for 36 percent of all school district expenditures. Since policy follows the buck, it is unsurprising that hundreds of earmarked policy requirements set performance standards for local districts.

Local school boards represent a second layer of accountability. They must comply with a huge collection of legal requirements. Technically, a board must be authorized specifically by law to act. According to one statute, Section 1709 of education law, they are obliged to adopt a budget, hire staff, develop curriculum, purchase textbooks, provide transportation and maintain school facilities. Much of this is delegated to the superintendent. What is more, except in large cities, local residents can yea or nay a board-adopted spending plan for which opportunity for public input is mandated. In short, New York’s educational governance system bristles with controls to assure that certain operational standards will be met.

What sorts of exemplary programs and services showcase the results of all these legal provisions? Here is a sample:

• Our support for children with disabilities has far exceeded federally mandated minimums for many decades; an average of 13 percent are identified, and they account for about 30 percent of school district spending.

• A 2010 national study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that we rank second among 47 states in health education and creating healthy school environments.

• Outside of cities, we mandate and heavily aid transportation to and from school for all children who live more than 2 or 3 miles away, including all nonpublic and charter school children.

• Categorical state funding for prekindergarten enables nearly 60 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds to participate, which puts New York in the top five states nationally.

• Since 1948 our state has offered shared cost-effective educational services through a current 37 regional boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES) whose services cover career and technical education, special education programs and professional development for district employees.

• Finally, all of our public school teachers must acquire a master’s degree to achieve certification, which then must be maintained annually by professional development.

Some of the best news about New York State public school performance is revealed by the combination of its many facets, as reported by Education Week this year. On average, two of every three 18- to 24-year-olds are college students or graduates. Only two other states do better. The national average is 56 percent.

On indicators ranging from chances of life success to achievement and finance, New York achieves a grade of B- (79.8 on a scale of 100), and ranks ninth in the nation. The national average is C (74.2). New York has remained well within the top 10 states since the beginning of Education Week profiles 20 years ago.

Several of our performance indicators are simply outstanding. No other state comes close to having required subject exams for high school graduation since the 1870s. Our high school graduation rate stands at 78 percent. Although this is only at the national average, our percentage improvement since 2012 has soared 17.5 percent, outpacing the average national change of 8.5 percent.

On Advanced Placement tests, for every 100 students who participate, 37 scored three or better (considered passing) in 2014. This surpasses the national average of 29 per 100. Were it not for the alternative cost-saving arrangements that encourage students to gain advanced (state) college credit without AP, our participation rates would be higher.

New York invests vigorously in its public schools, as is true for all public services. We spent 4.2 percent of our taxable resources on education as of 2014. The national average was 3.3 percent.

Most revealing, however, is the extent to which we have applied these tax revenues to level the learning field for all children. Given the number of students involved, and the demographic diversity of the state, it is astounding that we achieve a top national benchmark of B+ (88.7) compared with the national average of C (73.9) on indexes that measure how well educational expenditures and opportunities have been equalized.

Education is always a work in progress, and averages tell a limited story, but as this school year begins, the vitality and scope of New York’s public educational quality should reassure us that every New York student who makes it here can definitely make it anywhere.

Jeffrey M. Bowen, Ed.D., of Delevan, retired as superintendent of the Pioneer School District in 2011 after a long career in education.

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