EDITORIAL: You want how much more?

REMEMBER HIGH STAKES TESTING? Many parents and local school administrators do. Think of it as the standardized-test-zombie apocalypse. Imagine hours of statewide tests taken by 3rd, 5th and 8th graders struggling with lessons based on educational principles developed during (cue the zombie music)… Night of the Living Common Core.

I added the “Night of…” part, but what became known four years ago as the Common Core tests did have a disruptive aspect. It took the form of nearly spontaneous protests by many parents in the Ichabod Crane Central School District who refused to allow their children to take the tests.

ICC had one of the highest rates of participation in this protest, although thousands of public school families across the state also insisted on “opting out” of the tests. This forced the state Board of Regents and the state Education Department to fire commissioner education, dismiss the company that created the tests and make changes in the way the tests are prepared and used. The protests have diminished. Mistrust lingers.

That’s history. Now for current affairs. This week the Regents released their budget proposal. They’re asking the governor and the legislature for $1.6 billion in additional state aid in the new year, most of it based on the needs of each school district. There’s a list of specific programs that the Regents also want in the budget. They run from career and technical education to extending the universal pre-kindergarten initiative; but school districts would get the lion’s share.

Some people might describe this as magical thinking. Just a few days before the Regents came out with this proposal Governor Cuomo was alerting state residents that the state government may face a deficit of $4 billion in the state budget for the new fiscal year that begins in April. And the $1.6 billion the Regents want is in addition to the $25.3 billion New York will spend this year on General Support for Public Schools.

There’s one other thing. Nobody yet knows what nasty surprises will emerge from the final tax bill Congressional Republicans are cooking up in Washington. Part of the deficit forecast for the state comes from the House and Senate tax bills, which would eliminate or limit the deduction of state and local taxes, including local school taxes. As a result taxpayers like us would pay more to fund huge tax breaks for billionaires.

Strange as it seems, the request for more funds doesn’t mean the Regents have lost their grip on reality. Instead, their request says a lot about their understanding of the way state and national politics work. Want proof? Nowhere in the press release or other documents supporting the call for a $1.6 billion increase in school funding is there a word about academic tests or new statewide standards.

If we’ve learned anything from the president it’s that surprises drive the news. Sure enough, even with all the other crazy stuff going on, the Regent’s unlikely request got attention.

Attention doesn’t translate into more money for public schools, but without visibility there would be no chance for an increase. Some folks will fault the Regents for proposing what amounts to an increase in state taxes if other spending remains level. They have a point. But look what bulk of the additional money would pay for: school district operating expenses.

So if the state spends more on the basic costs of school districts, that should mean school boards and district voters will have more of a say over how their property taxes are used and how much money needs to be raised locally. In a time of declining school enrollment, that matters.

It’s wildly optimistic to see this proposal as a major shift in state policy, but it does remind us that for at least the next three years we face a federal government openly hostile to public education. More than ever local school districts must depend on the state–the Regents, the legislature and the governor–to assure the survival of our schools.

This Regents proposal deserves public support. But a lack of trust clouds that goal. If the Regents want parents to back this $1.6-billion plan they have to mount a campaign to inform school communities what to expect from future testing and give them a voice in the process. Failure to do this could rekindle public resistance.

There are enough divisions in our society. Our children and grandchildren cannot afford needless squabbles between parents and education policymakers–two groups that must be allies in the struggles ahead.

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