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State ed reform task force meeting draws a crowd, and some ire

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission’s 10-stop tour swept into the Bronx for three hours today, members got an earful about more than just how to improve the state’s schools.

It was standing-room-only for most of the meeting, one of many conditions that drew grumbling from some in the crowd who said the commission was giving New York City short shrift on their tour. They complained that the venue was too small, the meeting too short, and the one-time visit too few.

About 140 seats were laid out in a cafeteria on the second floor of Hostos Community College, but they filled up quickly. As the meeting got under way, about 20 people remained outside, waiting to be let in by security.

“I think it’s totally unfair that New York City should get one-tenth of the state’s attention when we have more than one-third of the student population,” said Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson.

Observers who have been to all three of the regional meetings so far — the first two were held in Albany and Buffalo — said today’s attendance was far larger than at either of the two previous events. And Richard Parsons, the commission’s chairman, apologized for the tight space, saying it was the biggest room that the group could find in the Bronx.

Issues over logistics did not overshadow the meeting’s goal: to air suggestions for how to improve the state’s schools while also cutting costs.

Nearly three dozen advocates, researchers, budget specialists, and educators offered proposed a broad range of reforms for the commission to consider when it submits its recommendations to Cuomo in December. Seventeen people were invited to join formal panels that the commission questioned before the meeting was opened to public comments.

Not everybody who wanted to speak was able to. Several people who submitted testimony in advance learned today that there wouldn’t be enough time to accomodate everyone.

For the first time at one of the regional meetings, a panel was dedicated entirely to the discussion about how to improve student achievement “through wraparound services,” or integrating social services such as health care into schools. One panelist, UFT vice president Leo Casey, discussed the union’s initiative to create “community schools,” six of which will launch in the city this fall.

On the panel for “school system structure and management,” panelists proposed redistributing state aid away from wealthy districts and toward needier ones and lengthening the school day and school year.

“There is enough room in the system already to do the job in New York State,” said Elizabeth Lynham, a director for the Citizen Budget Commission, a non-partisan budget watchdog.

New York State spends an average of about $18,000 per student each year, the highest in the country. Lynham said districts that could afford $30,000 on their students should receive less state aid. She referred to an infographic CBC released today that showed disparities in per-pupil-spending among the state’s 700 districts.

Lynham also said savings could be found in the health insurance plans that teachers receive. Teachers spend significantly less on their health insurance premiums compared to other public employees around the state and Lynham said that if unions renegotiated to raise premiums, the state would save $500 million.

To improve teacher quality, many speakers were in agreement that a teacher evaluation system was paramount in New York State, where just a fraction of the districts have one in place. In New York City, the UFT and the Bloomberg administration have yet to hammer out a deal.

Districts that don’t have a deal in place by the end of the year will lose state aid, but several speakers proposed another incentive.

“Since there has been little progress thus far, we recommend the state should create a default evaluation system,” said Tara Brancato, an Educators 4 Excellence member and a teacher at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy International High School.

Panelists and public speakers were selected beforehand by organizers from Cuomo’s office, who did not explain how they decided who would be allowed to speak. Haimson said she learned that she would serve on a panel after a Cuomo aide asked for her testimony two days ago.

But Mary Conway-Spiegel, a New York City advocate who opposes school closures, said in a comment on GothamSchools that she submitted a testimony about “warehousing,” a topic that State Education Commissioner John King spoke out about today, but was not allowed to speak at the meeting today.

The commission was missing some members from New York City. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan were both scratched from the lineup at the last minute. Another half dozen committee members were absent, including Randi Weingarten, whose teachers union launches its annual convention in Detroit today.

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