THE BLOG
05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Albany Takes NYS Public School Education With a Grain of Salt

The cacophony over what to do about public school education and when to do it and how to do it... is deafening. The disconnects have run absolutely wild.

In Washington, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan propose changes to No Child Left behind, some good some bad; National educational standards are proposed; Diane Ravitch (the former spouse of NY's Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch), once a major champion of choice and accountability, recants; business and thought leaders such as Bill Gates bemoan the quality of education in the US and the quality of output; and California pink slips 36,000 teachers; school budgets across the country are decimated; the charter school fight rages on and on in New York siphoning scarce tax dollars to create select public school enclaves that are free to ignore the state mandates and labor rules by which the rest of the public school system must abide. Teacher bashing ensues unabated on editorial pages and in Newsweek. In New York if the Governor's and New York State Senate's proposed budget is approved, over 15,000 teachers are slated to be laid off statewide -- with no plan or regard as to what impact that will have in the classroom. Many school budgets being devised by school boards and administrators throughout New York State appear by and large to be coming in at or below 2% over the previous years' budgets. Given the cost drivers school districts must deal with, that's pretty damn good. There is plenty to argue about regarding what ails our educational system -- in New York, much of the blame lies in Albany -- and the legislature's symbiotic relationship with those who first and foremost put the blind protection of public employees over students.

Yet even in our own dysfunctional New York State, a rare bit of thoughtfulness and sanity is peeking through, courtesy of a 25 year veteran of the New York State Senate, Suzi Oppenheimer. It's taken her the better part of a year, but Sen. Oppenheimer is beginning to grow into her role as Chairperson of the Senate Education Committee. Just last week Sen. Oppenheimer sponsored and the senate actually passed legislation to begin to peel back the rampant growth of unfunded mandates on school districts. To be frank, the legislation barely scratches the surface of the need to eliminate reams of existing mandates on school districts. Mandates are among the primary cost drivers that have caused explosive growth in property taxes. The Mandate Relief bill prohibits the legislature from imposing future unfunded mandates on school districts after the start of a school year. This is woefully inadequate -- but like the national health reform legislation - at least it's a start.

Yet the Mandate Relief bill will likely die in the State Assembly. The reason? A series of laughably ignorant editorials eviscerating a small portion of the bill -- a part of which would have school district contingency budget CPI cap formulations be based on a 5-year rolling average vs. whatever it is year to year: http://bit.ly/ad6Mj8; http://bit.ly/chgLk9. These editorials -- blind diatribes without context -- have rocked the Assembly sponsor, Amy Paulin to back off. Remember, in New York, the school tax is the only tax New Yorkers actually get to vote on each year (outside of big cities). If the school budget vote fails, then school districts are mandated to adopt a budget that is no higher than the prior year's budget plus the lesser of 4% or the CPI. This year the CPI was less than zero -- so school districts whose budgets that are defeated at the polls will be faced with budgets with zero increases -- and in the wonderful world of public school mandates and contractual obligations, heads will roll and students will get screwed.

The rolling average proposal makes sense. Most federal, state and local government accounting use multi-year averages to manage their budgets. And yes, this year such a computation would mitigate catastrophic school budget cuts. But most districts are aiming at or below 2% anyway -- unlike many towns, villages and counties which are hoisting double-digit increases on the taxpayer without the need for a separate vote. In future years when the CPI will skyrocket due to hyper-inflation -- this rolling average will serve to tamp down the inflationary increases that are sure to come. This is nothing more or less than a proposal for sound budgetary management -- and giving school districts, which always have to operate with one hand (or two plus a foot) tied behind their backs some ability to implement sound budget planning.

But in Albany it looks like nothing will change, mandates will run amok, employee entitlements will be untouched, legislators will run for cover in what is likely to be an anti-incumbent election year, and...oh yeah, kids still need to be educated so they can race to the top. You would think a crisis would finally knock some sense and responsibility into our legislators. But no. Exhibit A: While Rome burns, Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduces legislation to ban the use of salt in restaurants -- no joke.