Bowing to extraordinary pressure from both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish blocs, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has put his weight behind an ‘education Tax Credit’ proposal that is just plain wrong.

No matter how you slice this, it is not just wrong, it is also unconstitutional.

Our federal and state constitutions mandate certain services be provided to all residents and citizens, services which include public education.

Sometimes, economists view the shifting a tax burden required to provide sufficient funding to ensure provision of adequate and acceptable services from one taxing entity to another in order to create the illusion of a tax cut or a public cost savings as a “Zero Sum Game.”

This proposed tax credit program is certainly NOT a zero sum game.

The sole beneficiaries of this proposed tax credit charade will be those families – and their allies and supporters – who elect to eschew the free and publicly supported education system which is intended and expected to provide all children in New York State the opportunity for a “sound basic education,” defined as a meaningful high school education that prepares students for competitive employment and civic participation .

When Rhode Island adopted an education tax credit program a few years back, it resulted in a windfall for the state’s two Jewish day schools. Between them, their students received some $400,000 in scholarship money in the program’s first year.

In Florida, tax credit legislation has resulted in nearly $10 million annually for scholarships for Jewish day schools and yeshiva students.

Now New York, which has some 150,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students — more than all the other states combined — has a chance of getting an education tax credit program that could deliver millions of dollars annually to Jewish day school families.

Another primary beneficiary of this proposed tax credit program will be supporters of private Catholic schools which have been plagued with declining enrollment and decreased core funding from the Church for several decades.

Offering a small number of self-selecting individuals the option to designate (Read:  Divert) up to 75% of their NY State Tax Liability to fund private religious schools is just plain wrong.

Despite the noble intent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools in New York State are more segregated today than they have ever been in the past 60+ years.

Whether we measure segregation from a racial, religious or economic perspective, it seems clear that some of our students come to school each day ready to learn, and other students face significant barriers which stand between them and educational success.

There are libraries filled with academic research that points to positive parental involvement as the primary force to ensure student success in school.

Most experts agree that when parents promote reading activities at home, the ripple effect goes beyond reading achievement, language comprehension and expressive language skills to positively impact pupils’ interest in reading, attitudes towards reading and attentiveness in the classroom.

The fact is: Family and home life have more bearing on student achievement than anything else.

Classroom teachers have an important role to play, but when confronted in their classroom by a majority of young people who are not prepared, not ready and not inspired to learn, even SuperTeacher faces a Sisyphean task.

From a purely mathematical (statistical/scientific) perspective, it is not possible to use a standardized test to compare groups of anything – including students – when the subjects of comparison lack a common foundation and have insufficient common attributes.

My point is that while elected officials, union members and many others are busy throwing mud at each other, the real issue of ‘failing schools’ has little to do with teachers, and much to do with economic segregation in residential housing patterns across New York State.

The 700 +/- public school districts in NYS serve some 2.7 Million students in some 4,500 public schools (including public charter schools).

Governor Cuomo’s office very recently released an extensive and well-researched report, “The State of New York’s Failing Schools”.

In just over 200 pages, the Report points out many symptoms of a public education system in NYS which is working for some, but leaving way too many students unprepared to become productive citizens.

The Report focuses in on 178 “priority” or “failing” schools in 17 school districts in New York. It says, “Ninety-three percent of students in failing schools are students of color and 82 percent of these students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Student achievement today at failing schools lags behind state averages in every category”.

Somehow, the Report did not really get to the core of the issue: How to address the concentration of disadvantaged and disenfranchised students in these 178 failing schools — just 4% of the overall number of schools in NYS.

While I think there has been some roll-back on the original proposal from Governor Cuomo’s office to tie teacher evaluations more closely to student achievement as measured by standardized test scores, I remain concerned that the debate around Common Core Standards and standardized testing continues to divide parents and other adults in New York State.

It is my belief that the intent of Common Core is really centered on a return to requiring that our students develop and use critical thinking skills.

For the last 40 years, or so, our public education system has relied primarily on Multiple Choice and/or True/False as a way to measure educational achievement.

The shift to Common Core, which relies much more on analysis and critical thinking, is a shock to many adults who were raised on Multiple Choice.

The Common Core State Standards is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know — and be able to articulate — at the end of each grade.

The standards were created through a bi-partisan, multi-state collaborative including teachers, school chiefs, administrators, and other experts to provide a clear and consistent framework for educators to ensure that all students across the U.S. have access to the information and resources they need to graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

One key role for the elected officials in our NYS Legislature is to ensure that real facts about Common Core Standards and subsequent testing are conveyed and explained to NY residents in a calm and rational way.

Another key role for our Legislature is to ensure that sufficient resources – including new and emerging paradigms – are made available to the 178 priority (or failing) schools in 17 school districts in New York.

As Governor Cuomo’s report, “The State of Failing Schools” points out: It’s not about money.

Some claim that their magic solution involves an unproven model such as: Charter Schools; Teach for America; Say Yes to Education; School Vouchers; Private School Tax Credits; or one of many other ‘snake oil’ solutions.

We are so fortunate in New York State to have some of the best colleges and universities, and some of the most experienced experts on teaching and child development.

Why are we – the residents, voters and taxpayers of New York State – left holding the bag: paying the most of any state in the U.S. per pupil, and achieving mediocre results?

I don’t think it has much of anything to do with teacher quality or teacher evaluations.

I think our approach to delivery of public education in New York State is obsolete, and until we are able to honestly and openly evaluate the system, and to seek optimum configuration, we will continue to spend too much; achieve mediocre results; and have this debate long into the future.

Many thanks to those elected officials who have taken the time and put some attention to this critical issue, and please feel welcome to contact me with any questions or concerns on my commentary.

I live in Westchester County, NY – the place they say has the highest property tax burden in the U.S.

Our Governor – Andrew Cuomo – also comes from Westchester County — and he has made it his mission to support effective ways to reduce and/or eliminate the government waste which necessitates the high property taxes we pay.

The incredible inefficiency of having 400+ independent government entities operating within Westchester County certainly is a primary culprit for the dubious honor of being named the highest taxed county in the U.S.

The largest portion of property taxes paid is attributable to funding public schools — 41 regular school districts in a county with less than 1 Million in total population.

Each of these districts is ‘self contained’ in that they have their own administration, buildings, and all of the fixed cost infrastructure which gets paid for whether there 275 students served (Pocantico Hills at an average per-pupil cost of $42,000) or 25,000 students (Yonkers at an average per-pupil cost of $19,600).

Contrast this to Montgomery County, Maryland — about the same physical size as Westchester, and with a very diverse population of just under 1 Million, demographically quite similar.

Montgomery County has just one school district which educates all of the 150,000 public school students in the county at an average per-pupil cost of $15,421.

Just about every year, Maryland Public Schools are ranked at the top in the nation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-schools-insider/post/maryland-schools-ranked-number-one–again/2012/01/11/gIQA7NEqrP_blog.html

While Montgomery County — perhaps due to its ethnic, racial and economic diversity — is not number one in the state, it seems to consistently score in the top 10, and compares very favorably against the composite Westchester score.

It’s really time for the taxpayers in NYS to put aside the political rhetoric and to find a way to reduce overall costs, whether through actual mergers and consolidations, or through consolidation of services which are not directly related to the classroom.

We can do better, and we must!

We have some 700 public school districts across New York State, and as Governor Cuomo pointed out recently in an interview, “It’s not about more money gets us more results.  Because if that was the case, our students would be doing better than any students in the country, because we are spending more than anyone else.”

No one could successfully argue that the K-12 public education system in New York State is either (a) effective, or (b) efficient.

Designed and governed under assumptions which were likely correct in the 19th century, we continue to operate our schools as though we live in a world where the horse is the primary means of transportation; where oil lamps and candles are used for illumination after dusk; and where young people are needed early and late each day to do chores on the farm.

An article published on February 7, 2014 in The Journal News (http://www.lohud.com/article/20140207/NEWS/302070065/City-rural-schools-say-they-re-underfunded) helps to illustrate some of the complexities in state funding formulas which seem to have disparate negative impact on small city and rural school districts which are more likely to be both ‘high need’ and ‘low resource’.

Digging further into the mystery of school funding in New York State led me to the NYS Association of Small City School Districts, and the December 2013 newsletter, http://scsd.neric.org/newsletters/2013/2013%20SCSD%20Newsletter%20december%202013%20FINAL.pdf.

One of the outcomes of ‘The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’ was a promise made in 2007 by our elected officials in Albany that state funding would be adjusted to take into account both the availability of local resources and the relative “need” of students in each district.

As Governor Cuomo pointed out, we are already spending the most of any state on education, and our overall results are mediocre.

Indeed, it is not how much we are spending, but how the money gets spent.  If our elected officials want to constrain education spending, they need to pass legislation which removes costs from the system.  One way to accomplish that would be through school district consolidation to remove redundancies and spread fixed costs over a broader base.

Another way to accomplish holding the line on spending would be to divert aid from wealthy, high-performing districts and re-direct that aid to low-resource, under-performing districts.

When it comes to educating our young people, there really doesn’t seem to be any “starve the beast” solution on the horizon.

Let’s pay attention to this issue now, because if we don’t fix it now, it will only continue to fester and act as a drag on the economic and fiscal viability of New York State.