At their first official meeting today, members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s blue-ribbon education reform commission stayed away from specifics.
But their two-hour discussion, held in a Midtown conference room, previewed some of the issues they will tackle as they travel the state to learn about problems facing local school districts.
The 25-member commission, announced more than six months ago, is tasked with coming up with recommendations aimed at reducing costs while improving the overall quality of the state’s schools. A report is due in late 2012.
New York State’s 3.4 million student school system is diverse and complex. It boasts the country’s largest school district — New York City — but it also includes six districts that employ fewer than eight teachers. At more than $18,000 per pupil, spending in the state is the highest in the country, 70 percent higher than the U.S. average, according to an analysis by Cuomo’s office. Spending has increased dramatically in the last 15 years, outpacing inflation, but student performance has barely budged. The state ranks 39th in graduation rates (73.5 percent) and no higher than 19th on any of the four NAEP test scores.
Cuomo has argued that the state’s school funds should be used more efficiently. The commission — which includes many of the state’s and country’s top education officials, including union leader Randi Weingarten and state education chief John King — is supposed to figure out how to make that happen.As a first step, the group will break into three subcommittees, Commission Chair Dick Parsons announced today. Elizabeth Dickey, president of Bank Street College, will lead a subcommittee on teacher and principal quality, likely to focus primarily on the controversial evaluation systems that have stalled reform efforts across the state. Former Citigroup CEO — and newly added member — Sanford Weill will head a committee analyze how education funding is currently allocated. A third committee will be led by Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada and will review the role of test scores and other assessments for measuring student outcomes. Canada’s committee will also look at the role of parent engagement.
Each subcommittee will take the same 10-region tour of the state, starting July 10. They will meet in New York City July 26. At those meetings, they will listen to public comments about what changes should be undertaken.
Whether those meetings will have an impact on the commission’s work is yet to be seen. Michael Rebell, a commission member who studies school equity issues, questioned whether the two to three hours allotted for each meeting would be enough to capture the full range of public opinions. And Carrie Remis, an upstate parent activist added to the commission amid criticism that it included no parent representatives, encouraged Parsons to allow parents to submit comments in writing because they are likely to be working or at home with children during the commission’s meetings.
The regional meetings will be starkly different from one another. Weill said that he planned to look closely at district consolidation as an option for school districts in western and upstate New York, where student enrollment has plummeted.
That’s unlikely to be on the agenda for New York City, with 3,300 students per square mile. Instead, Weill’s committee is more likely to discuss issues like capital funding and facility costs. An official at the city’s charter school advocacy center took to Twitter during the meeting to say he hoped that the conversation would touch on new facilities funding streams for charter schools that currently operate in private space.
#charterschools sure would love to see facility funding be part of the discussion,” David Golovner, an official for the New York City Charter Center, which advocates and supports charter schools, wrote on twitter.
Cuomo’s staff launched a new web site for the commission in conjunction with the first meeting today.