By now you know that New York State failed miserably in its quest for federal funds under RACE TO THE TOP – a program designed and administered by the federal Department of Education --- to provide funds to states who demonstrated a willingness to create and partner in programs to improve educational results in school districts throughout the United States.
About 80% of eligible states applied; 16 of the eligible states were advanced to the final round and the states of Tennessee and Delaware were announced the winners and awarded handsome sums of federal money to improve the educational climate and conditions in their states. Both states worked closely with stakeholders within the states; politicians, unions, school boards, and others to draft their plans and accede to relatively modest changes in their systems. New York, a strange finalist at this stage to begin with – ranked 15th out of 16 finalists. The plan was flawed in many areas; predictably the unions; led by union leaders Mulgrew and Ianuzzi, were strong opponents of the major provisions such as student evaluations of teachers and charter school development. But, they were not alone.
There are some critical matters that our School District can articulate even better than I and, at the outset, Sara Richmond and her colleagues have, in my judgment, worked better than their predecessors over the years in trying to work with the beleaguered city taxpayer while minimizing damage to the district. While there are many areas to further explore, such as opening up union contracts, let's be very fair and honest and give credit where it is due. Actually, the working with the local unions and arriving at contracts with FUSE and the management union is the direct responsibility of Superintendent Organisciak per NYS law and let's live this lie at this point.
Our broken state senate has recently passed a bi-partisan bill by a vote of 49-11 that is labeled a “pension reform bill.” Pensions are the answer to a municipal worker's prayers; they often sacrifice salary for benefits when compared to private industry (although this has really changed over the recent years). Any district will tell you that the cost of health and welfare benefits; especially as structured under existing contracts – are a major contributor to their educational budget. But, it is the pension plans that are of most concern and here, the state bears a large degree of responsibility and, for sure, culpability. What the state has recently approved by 49-11, under the camouflage of being “reform”, is to allow employees between the age of 55 and 62 to retire early without any penalties, by reducing the period of time a staff member qualifies for a no penalty early retirement, from 30 years to 25 years. This is monumentally stupid, dysfunctional, and descriptive to our theme for NYS education which is Plummet to the Depths. Why:
- It is grossly expensive and 30 years early retirement eligibility was generous enough to begin with.
- It goes against overall logic which is actually to extend retirement age in, for example, Social Security as our expense base is unsustainable and we become healthier for a longer period of time, and so, more able to work.
- It is, as the saying goes, an oxymoron, you know like “giant shrimp.” On the one hand, we are constantly led to believe and except that experienced teachers and administrators are instrumental to the classroom and school. We also are subjected daily to union grievances and issues around seniority; you know, “last in, first out.”
- It is baseline, moronic and unexplainable given the fact that NYS has said they must hold back another $2.1 billion dollars in school aid due to a fiscal crisis.
Let's go back to a few earlier points on our failure in the federal government's Race to the Top program. Before doing so, our temporary and unplanned Governor had, inexplicably, included something like an additional $500-$700 million dollars in the State budget, feeling I suppose, that New York State would be a winner in the first go around in the Race to the Top. Whatever possessed him to believe this – surely he had to be aware of his shattered senate with senators from New York City calling for breaking down New York City's programs and thus, program (parenthetically one highly praised by President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan. Why? All politics of course – power through local school boards that were disastrous to progress in New York City. They are not alone! Others in the State supported this ill-conceived bill. Foremost again from New York were noted union supported Senators Abbate and Savino. If you research union contributions, you will get your answers; in fact, Abbate describes himself proudly as the “unions' bulldog. I think to their credit that both Jeff Klein of Bronx/Westchester and Craig Johnson of Nassau County opposed the bill. These are liberal senators for sure, but both are doing useful things in the area of tax relief, school taxes, and yes, school support.
If things do not radically change in New York State, we will not, repeat will not, be a finalist or winner of substantive awards. Let me tell you something shockingly stupid. It is alleged by the New York Post and others that the pedagogic geniuses who crafted the rationale for funding under Reach for the Top asked that $200,000 of any award go to them for office furniture such as desks, tables, chairs and so forth --- not in the classroom, not to improve learning climate, hire more and better teachers or set up programs to advance our students abilities to read, write, do science, math and the like. “We are talking about chairs and tables.” These knuckleheads actually put these things down on a federally funded initiative that could have given New York State up to $700 million dollars in award money. On top of opposition from unions, unbalanced budgets, grasping and clueless politicians --- “desks and chairs!”
Give some love and praise to Sara Richmond and her more committed and creative colleagues. And, write Suzi Oppenheimer, who is the head of the Education Committee in the Senate. Demand that she verify or refute what these paradigms of “rapid descent” in the NYS education community did and yes, what they are not doing.