ALBANY - The topic of education reform was anything but glossed over by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address Wednesday.
During his third address, Cuomo outlined several plans designed to improve the quality of education throughout the state.
The points presented by Cuomo in his speech were not overly varied from the preliminary recommendations that were made by the Education Reform Commission earlier this month. The commission was formed by Cuomo in April in order to combat the serious issues that have been facing the state's public education system.
According to information the governor's website, New York state spends more money on education than any other state in the nation, but ranks 39th in high school graduation rates. Only 73 percent of New York's students graduate from high school and, of that percentage, only 37 percent are college ready.
One of the more notable proposals put forth by the commission is the need for more education through an extended academic year. In his speech, Cuomo suggested that this could be achieved via three possibilities: a longer school day, a longer school year or a combination of the two.
While the adoption of such a program would be entirely voluntary for school districts, it would carry enormous costs in teacher and administration salaries. According to Cuomo, however, if a district does decide to opt into the extended education year, the state would pay for 100 percent of those costs. He did not elaborate on how that would be accomplished.
Both Cuomo and the committee have outlined the need for an increase in pre-kindergarten. In his speech, Cuomo mentioned that only 67 percent of school districts offer pre-kindergarten, and for those that do, the average school day is two and a half hours. He has proposed an increase in pre-kindergarten availability and in the length of the pre-kindergarten school day.
Another committee recommendation that was brought up in Cuomo's speech was the proposal of a "bar-type" exam that all new public school teachers would be required to pass. This proposed test would be in addition to the Annual Professional Performance Review plans that districts were required to submit in order to receive an additional 4 percent in state funding. The elements of these APPR plans, which were submitted by 99 percent of schools throughout the state, are to be phased in this year.
Cuomo also mentioned that he would give a $15,000 stipend to top teachers that are selected to instruct other teachers on classroom education performance. In a nutshell, he has proposed to do away with an equal baseline salary for educators, choosing to instead to make their pay performance-based.
Finally, Cuomo proposed that the state's education system be largely financed through the establishment of three new non-Indian casinos in undisclosed locations throughout Upstate New York. He explained that 90 percent of these casinos' proceeds, whether from an up front franchise fee or through revenue-sharing money from slot machines, go toward helping to fund state aid for public schools.
Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, believes that these proposals are a step in the right direction.
"Gov. Cuomo's State of the State provides positive educational initiatives, including a proposal for full-day (pre-kindergarten), longer school days, a longer school year and community schools," he said. "Reforms of this type have a track record of success. We look to the state budget to see how the proposals can move from ideas to reality."
Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, was also eager to throw his support behind the governor's proposals.
"Gov. Cuomo deserves high marks for putting forth solid proposals that will help raise student achievement," he said. "Proposals to provide full-day pre-kindergarten, extend the school day and offer 'wrap around' community services in schools all make perfect sense. We support them whole-heartedly."
Kremer did note that Cuomo did not mention anything in the way of mandate relief.
"We realize that the State of the State is a time of vision," he said. "That's why we eagerly await the governor's upcoming budget proposal to see if these initiatives are supported with adequate resources."
Chuck Leichner, superintendent of Forestville Central School, has his own hopes and fears for the proposed reforms.
"We can't afford to have unfunded mandates," said Leichner. "The big question is, 'How are we going to pay for these things?' But we are in favor of increased rigor and opportunities for students at the elementary and high school level. I like that they're going to make some adjustments to teacher and principal preparation programs at the college level. Because it really is a million-dollar investment for us to hire someone. We're here to provide an education for kids, not to be a teacher-training institution."
"Another thing that I thought was good is an emphasis on community schools and how they would be a real service provider for the community," he continued. "In rural areas like Forestville, agencies are so widely distributed that families have a tough time getting to the services they need. What we'd like to do is serve as a resource for parents as early as the elementary level by partnering with these agencies."
It remains to be seen how these proposals can be feasibly implemented. Many of them have been presented before but have been blocked by politics or lack of funding.
Cuomo is expected to release the details behind funding for these programs in his proposed budget later this month, while New York state is already facing a $1 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year starting on April 1.