EDITORIAL: This won’t fix education, either

AFTER ALL THE TURMOIL of recent weeks over high stakes testing and opting out and teacher evaluations and blah-dee blah, blah, blah, you could hear a pin drop Tuesday for lack of a fuss over school district budgets. Voters gave their stamp of approval to every spending plan proposed in this county. In the Taconic Hills District the budget won with 86% of the vote. Those who voted No on that budget–it will spend less this year, not more–must have thought they were hallucinating.

Or maybe some folks just don’t believe in public education, regardless of the cost. They have a point. For all the money and effort spent on teaching generations of Americans to read and write and know a little something about history, science, math as well as the difference between fact and fiction, what have we achieved? The Hudson City School District attracted a mere six percent of the eligible voters in the whole district.  The ones who did show up overwhelmingly endorsed the budget of a school district that’s showing significant signs of progress after some very rocky years. But overall there is scant evidence that local voters are willing to exercise their right to participate in the democratic process.

At least the Hudson District deserves credit for calculating the turnout figure and for making the shamefully low rate of participation available to the public while the vote was still fresh in the minds of those who care about the right to vote. The question now is whether any of this matters.

It appears that Governor Cuomo is quite well aware of the current lack of engagement by voters when it comes to public school funding. And that could explain why the governor is pushing hard to win approval for a plan he calls the Education Investment Tax Credit (EITC), which would provide tax breaks for donations to foundations that support private schools and public schools, in particular for scholarships available to low income students. Too bad the tax breaks would go disproportionately to wealthy taxpayers.

We have some excellent private schools in this county–the three that come to mind immediately are Hawthorne Valley, Mountain Road and Darrow. There are smaller ones, too, and more within commuting distance in the region. They enrich the county in many ways and if the state comes up with revenue neutral measures to enhance these schools, the ideas would find support here. But the details of the governor’s proposal aren’t at all neutral.

In an editorial this week the Times Union reported that the plan proposed by the governor would reduce tax revenues by $70 million this year and that public schools would see only $20 million of that money. The legislature would be even more generous. Anyone familiar with the state budget knows that these are piddling amounts compared to the billions the state spends on public education each year. Still, the EITC would divert money away from public school support and give the wealthiest taxpayers an goody not available to the rest of us.

It’s not entirely fair to blame the governor for trying to find new ways to fund education and to shake up the system we have. He sees an opportunity, though a lopsided one, and he’s following his familiar path toward a dramatic new law designed to force abrupt change.

Innovation is a messy process in the best of circumstances. Add politics to the mix and what once may have looked like progress quickly turns into a giveaway to a special interest. That may explain the governor’s haste to win passage for the EITC. The longer he waits the less desirable it looks.

Governor Cuomo hasn’t learned there’s no magic potion to improve education. That goal requires a constant struggle to identify programs that improve grades and graduation rates, reduce bullying or enhance teacher performance;  and then it demands that we figure out how to adapt that knowledge to schools that need help. It’s the hard work of public education that goes on in our schools here in Columbia County and around the state every day.

Innovation and clever schemes to leverage philanthropy have their place. But before the governor goes charging after them once again he should spend some time convincing the public that he has a commitment to public education, which, after all, is the only form of primary and secondary education most of us and our families will ever be able to afford. Our state representatives should oppose the EITC bills.

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