A reformer is born (or so one hopes)

Liam Julian

When New York elected Democratic attorney general Elliot Spitzer to succeed Republican George Pataki as governor, nobody knew exactly what tack he would take on education. During the campaign, Spitzer was prone to accusations of being, as his opponent noted, "all things to all people." While he supported some union initiatives (such as lowering class sizes), he also supported some reform-minded goals (such as raising the cap on charter schools).

But in good political fashion, he was always vague about specifics.

No more. Spitzer's January 29th "Contract for Excellence" speech at the State Education Department put some flesh (and many dollars) on the bones of his reform vision, centering on three types of accountability--financial, programmatic, and performance.

Yes, it includes some parts that are questionable, such as its emphasis on lowering class sizes. No, it said next to nothing about content and curriculum (though, to be fair, New York State already has some of the nation's best content standards). Yes, it pours out gobs more money for schooling. Says the New York Times, "$1.4 billion in added education spending statewide for the coming fiscal year, increasing to $7 billion in added annual spending after four years."

So what's to like? Mainly this, from Spitzer: "There will be no more excuses for failure. The debate will no longer be about money, but about performance."

He appears not to be kidding. If you're in any way involved with a New York school, Spitzer wants your work transparent and you held accountable. He wants to reform the state's "Byzantine and politically-driven school aid formulas," for example, by distributing educational dollars according to students' needs.

And he seems willing to gore some sacred cows. He proposed expanding alternative certification for teachers, measuring the effectiveness of teacher education programs, and changing how teachers receive tenure so that it's "granted the way other professional decisions are made"--based on results. He also proposed paying higher salaries to highly qualified teachers who enter hard-to-staff schools or teach hard-to-staff subjects (i.e., differential pay: pay the physics teacher more than the phys. ed. teacher).

Spitzer also vowed to create a database of reform strategies with backing from "hard data and professional research." Districts will supposedly select their intervention strategies from only these programs. And he wants to create another database--a "value-added assessment system" that can track the academic performance of individual students (a reform that's worked well in Florida).

Then there are charter schools, to which Albany's Democrats (and not a few of its Republicans) have been notoriously unfriendly. Spitzer would raise the statewide cap to 250 from its previous 100. (There are givebacks, however, including some sort of collective bargaining rights for charter teachers and "transition" aid for districts such as Albany that are losing many pupils to charters.) He even included this mildly titillating line: "Our first priority must be funding public schools, but to the extent our fiscal resources allow, we should support parents who choose to send their children to private and parochial schools." Not too clear what that means. We still predict that New York State will be the 50th to adopt vouchers.

And finally, Spitzer wants each district in the state to sign performance contracts with superintendents; if the district's academic performance is unacceptable for a set number of years (the Governor didn't say how many), its superintendent must be replaced. Principals will have "School Leadership Report Cards," too. School boards that repeatedly fail their districts? Spitzer wants to have the Commissioner of Education disband them.

Getting all this done will be tough and Spitzer hasn't yet shown his mettle in legislative combat (he's shown some gall, though). But that doesn't take any luster off his proposals, which are well-constructed, far-reaching, and don't tip-toe around the controversial issues.

We wish him well. New York already has whopping taxes and spends a ton on education. Outside Manhattan, however, the state is in economic trouble and needs to turn itself around, beginning with its human capital. As for the larger picture, when a rising-star Democrat with national ambitions comes out in favor of such education reforms, we can all be encouraged that, perhaps, the traditional way of doing business is no longer such.

"Spitzer's Education Agenda Promises Aid Increase," by David M. Herszenhorn and Danny Hakim, New York Times, January 30, 2007

"Schools pleased, wary about aid," by Meaghan M. McDermott, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 1, 2007

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