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Debate emerges over possible school 'death penalty'

WBFO News file photo

The school year starts for school children in New York this week and next week. It comes amid concerns over low test scores for many of the state’s students, and harsh rhetoric from Governor Cuomo, saying he wants a “death penalty” option for dealing with failing schools. 

Most of the state’s school children did not measure up in new tests administered last year. Only 31% passed the new math and English exams, according to the State Education Department.  Numbers were higher in suburban schools and lower in urban and rural areas.

While education officials say scores will improve as they fully implement the new Common Core standards and teaching plans, many parents are jittery about whether their children will be adequately prepared for college and careers.

Governor Cuomo, perhaps sensing that, offered harsh words for schools that see only a small percentage of their students passing the new required tests.

Cuomo says now that test results are beginning to measure which schools are the weakest, something “dramatic” has to happen in order to turn the failing schools around.

“Whether it is a take over by the state, or mayoral control or take over by a charter school, there’s going to have to be a death penalty for failing schools, so to speak,” Cuomo said.

“Where we say ‘the children come first, before the bureaucracy and if the school fails, the school has to end’.”

The governor says, though, that the state should not dictate policy, and that local communities should have a say in the future of the schools.

“I don’t want Albany to sit there and tell communities how to run their schools,” said Cuomo.

“But I do feel comfortable sitting in Albany and saying failing schools is not an option, and we’re not going to allow another generation of children be failed by a failing bureaucracy.”

Overall, Cuomo says, he thinks it’s a sign of “progress” that the poorest performing students and schools have now been identified.

The governor made his remarks at the start of the long Labor Day weekend. And he offered no bills or policy proposals to go with his remarks.

It was several days before those in the education community began reacting.

The teacher’s unions expressed dismay at what they said were the governor’s “inflammatory” choice of words, and said it “demonstrated disrespect” to educators, students and their parents, especially to “vulnerable” children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement that the schools should be “fixed”, not closed.

Billy Easton is with the school funding advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, which also works with the teacher’s unions. He says he also finds the governor’s phrasing troubling.

“It’s a bad image, and it’s just the wrong approach ,” said Easton. “It was very disturbing.”

 Easton says his group agrees with the governor that failing schools are unacceptable, but he says the alternatives that the governor suggested, state takeover, mayoral takeover or conversion to a charter school, are strategies that have not worked well in the past. Instead, he says, schools should implement programs that have been successful and that the governor himself has endorsed in the past.

“Make sure kids have full day pre K, a longer school day and school year, a high quality curriculum,” said Easton.

Alliance for Quality Education supports implementation of a 2006 court ruling that said the state needs to spend billions of dollars more per year on school aid, in order to provide every child with a the “sound, basic” education required in the state’s constitution.  Easton says his group does not oppose having strings attached to that money, like meeting performance standards.

“We would be all for the state saying, ‘we’re not just going to give the money, we’re going to make sure it’s spent well,” he said.

Cuomo, though, has consistently said that more money is not the answer ,and he’s concerned about “the taxpayers of this state”.

“One of the reasons that our taxes are so high, we spend more money on education than any other state,” said Cuomo. “The schools, theoretically, should be some of the best in the country.”

Cuomo expects the issue of how to deal with failing schools to be a major concern issue in next legislative session. He says he may ask lawmakers for a new law to give the state more power to close the schools or make changes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.