Governance

A friend emailed this morning:? ?Breathtaking."? It was the first of many such emails and phone calls.

They were all referring to our board of education's vote last night (a board I am a member of) to impose a school budget that raises the local property tax levy by 9.8 percent (triple the New York state average) and, by the way, a budget that was soundly rejected ? by a 3 to 1 margin of 18% of registered voters ? at the polls on May 17. As I wrote then, the board overruled the popular will just minutes after the results were in because ? well, because it could (see the ?contingency? law below), 4 to 3. Aside from getting the Tin Ear award for politically dumb moves (the gang of four might have waited a respectable few days, at least, before rubbing their power in the voters' noses), the rush to tyranny revealed a great deal about the board's isolation from its community, not to mention a deafness to some harsh economic realities (it is a poor community with average family income of just over $30,000, and an unemployment rate of about 9 percent). Needless to say, the community roared back, packing the high school cafeteria a few days later, forcing one of the four to change his mind and the board to rescind its previous vote and promise to go back to the drawing board. As I wrote last week, Round 2 had gone to...

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I'm not sure how many of the 200-plus people who packed our cafeteria last night had read Rick Hess' How Supes and Principals Should Not Respond to Tight Budgets, but it was as if Hess were channeling (a new power of his) the room as our supes and principals and teachers and board of ed were taken to the proverbial woodshed by a crowd of angry taxpayers, who said, in no uncertain terms, Get Real! The district (i.e. the administration and board of ed) had tried to pull a fast one last week, hiding behind the skirts of the state's ?contingency? law (the phrase ?this is not the USSR!? was used several times last night, though, unfortunately, in this matter I'm sorry to say the resemblance is a little scary) to impose a property tax levy increase of 9.8 percent, just minutes after voters had rejected that notion by a whopping 3 to 1 margin.? ?This is a democracy!? was shouted numerous times during the hour-long public tongue-lashing. And at some point in the haze of hoorahs and cheers as the board voted to rescind its decision from last week and go back to the drawing board, I felt a whoosh of air behind me and turned to see ? no lie -- Mssr. de Tocqueville, notebook in hand, scurrying from the room?.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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It's school budget voting day in New York. And in my little district, with fewer than 2,000 K?12 students, voters are being asked to approve a $41,249,180 budget, which is a remarkably lean one, considering that it is just .77 more than last year's budget (that's less than one percent).

According to our state school board association (NYSSBA), that's pretty good:

Reflecting the difficult economic times, the average school district spending increase [in the state] would fall for the seventh year in a row?. The average proposed spending increase of 1.3 percent for 2011-12 is lower than the 1.4 percent average this year, the 2.3 percent average in 2009-10, 5.3 percent in 2008-09, 6.1 percent in 2007-08, 6.3 percent in 2006-07, 6.6 percent in 2005-06, and 6.9 percent in 2004-05. The five-year average is 3.9 percent.

Much of the restraint, obviously, is due to the busted economy; in New York, state aid to districts was cut by $1.2 billion.? In our district, if the voters approve the budget, we will be axing 22 teachers, 11 percent of the teaching staff. (New York City thinks it has it bad: Bloomberg's proposed teaching cuts ? 6,100 --? represent only 8 percent of Gotham's teaching force.)

What's not so good ? and if there is a ?burning issue? in my district, this is it ? is the proposed 9.8% local tax levy increase, more than double the increase on the ballot in surrounding districts and nearly three times...

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In another major sign of how far the school reform movement has traveled, New York's Board of Regents today appointed John King, an African American and former managing director of Uncommon Schools, Commissioner of Education. (See my Education Next story on King's key involvement in New York's Race to the Top bid last year.)

King is smart and hardworking and tough on the details.? He'll need all those gifts and more as he takes on the challenges of running a once moribund school system, with the third highest enrollment numbers in the country (2.7 million K?12 students, after California, with 6 million, and Texas, with 4.6 million) and a powerful teachers union.

Good luck, Mr. King.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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Andrew Cuomo is not considered an education reform governor, but the Democratic leader of the Empire State has taken some bold stands in reining in education spending (by a billion bucks) ? even if it was courage born of necessity.? After caving in on Last-in-First-Out (LIFO) in March (see here), the new governor came back on Friday with a letter to the state's Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, asking for a tougher teacher evaluation system than the one the Regents had first proposed -- and which the Regents (having just hired John King as Commissioner (see here), will take up this afternoon.

According to the letter, Cuomo wants the Regents, who answer, officially, to the State Legislature not the Governor, to make ?comprehensive changes? to the evaluation plan, including:

? Increase the percentage of statewide objective data, like measuring student growth on statewide test scores, used to evaluate teacher performance;

? Impose rigorous classroom observation and other subjective measures standards on school districts when evaluating teacher performance;

? Require a positive teacher evaluation rating be given only when the teacher receives a combined positive rating on both subjective and objective measures, such as student growth on statewide tests; and,

? Accelerate the implementation of the evaluation system.

Though the devil is in the details, which Cuomo provides in his letter, there seems little doubt, as the Albany Times Union put it, ?that the letter puts him ?on course for clash...

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Last week the lefties staged a protest against millionaires in New York City.? Tomorrow, a group called the District Parent Coordinating Council is asking kids in Buffalo to stay home from school to protest the terrible education students in the Empire State's second largest city are getting ? and have been receiving for some time. ?With a student population of 47,000, the Queen City also has the state's second largest school district (though far smaller than New York City's 1.2 million student system) and has an $800 million budget, money worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, according to the district's most recent state report card, the money (some $17,000 per student) doesn't seem to be resulting in much education for the largely poor students: 70% qualify for free and reduced lunch,? 25% get suspended every year, less than 60% graduates, 73% of its eighth-graders are ?below proficient? in English and 74% of them below proficient in math.? Is it any wonder that 18% of its teachers leave every year?

State Deputy Commissioner of Education John King*, who had been managing director of Uncommon Schools before being tapped for New York's number 2 education job (perhaps soon to be #1 ? see here), had visited the district a couple weeks earlier and told its leaders to lock themselves in a room and not come out until they had some solutions.

Well, the leaders came to a public meeting on May 3, but not only didn't they...

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One of the more interesting characteristics of the recent curriculum counter-manifesto was its lead sentence, which had this lovely turn of phrase: we ?oppose the call for a nationalized curriculum.?? Interesting, I thought, since I don't believe anyone at the Shanker Institute called for a nationalized curriculum; they called for a national or common curriculum.? Was this a distinction without a difference? Was Shanker just being "sneaky"?? Not at all ? and I'm sure the writers of the counter-manifesto understand all too well that nationalize is a verb, meaning to do something like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez might do to oil companies or hotels.

Nice try, guys.

On the other side of the aisle, of course, is the privatization crowd.? Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have been sharing their worries about billionaire ed reformers conspiring to kill off public schools for a long time and just about anything associated with ?business? draws hizzahs of privatizing public education.? Just the other day, Gail Collins weighed in on the Times op-ed page with a column called Reading, ?Riting and Revenues.? ?Today,? she opines, ?let's take a look at the privatization craze and the conviction that there is nothing about molding young minds that can't be improved by the profit motive.?

Though I would never be one to pooh-pooh a rhetorical flourish or two, there really are times when the language should be used to clarify not confuse.? The word "demogoguery" often comes to mind.? Words...

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In a fascinating study of interest group influence on school board elections, Stanford political scientist Sarah Anzia offers new reasons for dropping special spring school district elections. And, as if on cue (though I don't know that there is any causal relationship), education reform governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana (also a GOP presidential candidate prospect), just signed into law, according to Sean Cavanagh of Ed Week, ?a measure to make major changes to school board elections around his state.?? The change in Indiana would move school board elections (from the spring) to the fall, said Daniels in his recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, because ?nobody votes? in the spring elections:

It's a lot easier? for an interest group to dominate the outcome and elect a friendly school board in the sparsely attended primary elections. And so now they will have more of the public at least eligible or at least on hand to take part in those elections, we'll see if it makes a difference.

According to Anzia's research, it should make a big difference. In a country with more than 500,000 elected officials, most of whom are not elected on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (the so-called regular cycle elections), she finds that school districts ?with off-cycle elections pay experienced teachers over 3 percent more than districts that hold on-cycle elections.?? Not surprisingly, the pay differential increased for the most senior teachers:? those with more than ten years...

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