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January 15, 2014

Local educators react to N.Y. reform study

By Jessica Reynolds Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — After the release of the New York Education Reform Commission’s final report, two area superintendents reflected on what can be done locally and across New York to improve public education and make better use of financial resources.

The 25-member commission, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012, released its findings Tuesday, suggesting ways to improve education in the state. A week earlier, Cuomo endorsed several of its suggestions during his State of the State address.

The same day the report was released, hundreds of students and teachers flocked to the Capitol to ask the governor for more school funding.

The commission’s top recommendations were to expand pre-kindergarten, upgrade classroom technology, and reward top teachers. Cuomo said these steps are essential in providing New York children with the best education, and that he looked forward to putting the recommendations to work in the future.

Unadilla Valley Central School Superintendent Robert Mackey said that while he believes these are great concepts, he does not believe they alone will have the desired impact. To bring about the kind of change the government wants to see in education, Mackey said, there needs to be a collaborative effort among parents, care providers, government leaders and educators to shift the focus to intensive early intervention for children aged 1 to 8.

“Especially in rural or poverty-stricken areas, research shows that providing children in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade and their parents with intensive, family-based literature and learning services is highly effective,” Mackey said. “Children ages 1-8 need to be worked with to develop key motor, communication and vocabulary skills, and these programs will provide a model for parents to follow, in order to help them give their children a solid, skill-based foundation in the home.”

Mackey said, this way, students will be foundationally ready and capable to learn once they reach older grades. He said this will prevent the need for special education and intervention later on.

Superintendent of Oneonta City Schools Joseph Yelich echoed this sentiment, saying he believes kids who get a good start early-on will be ahead of the game.

When Cuomo organized the commission in April 2012, he said that New York spends more money per student than any other state, but lags behind most states in high school graduation rates. Richard Parsons, chairman of the commission, said $75 billion is spent on education every year in New York. This is more than the total budgets of 47 states.

“We clearly can do a better job in terms of how we use these resources to educate our kids,” Parsons said. 

Regarding budgeting, Mackey said there needs to be flexibility for school districts on what they can use funds for, instead of designating funds specifically for updating classroom technology or teacher rewards.

“Our school district is already up to date with the advanced classroom technology. We need to be able to use that money to fund a full-day universal pre-kindergarten or the early-intervention programs to work with young children and their families,” Mackey said. “We would rather spend the funds on this, which would eventually prevent the need for intervention and special education services later on.”

Yelich said he believes schools need to strive for a more-equitable, balanced distribution of state aid.

“Technology upgrades and support are essential for preparing students for future jobs,” Yelich said. “Rewarding top teachers is a solid concept, but how would we pay for that?”

According to Mackey, if schools invest in the right places now, they can save money in the long run.

“Some politicians look for a cure-all for the problems in education today, but there is none,” Mackey said. “Now is the right time to spend more money on early intervention programs and services targeted at families and children ages 1 to 8, so we can prevent the need for reactionary special education later on. If we spend more now in these areas, we will save more later.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.