commissioner letterhead

January 2009






Containing Costs and Raising Achievement

Regents policies pursue two aims that have wide support: containing costs and raising achievement. These policies have been and are being discussed in several Regents committees—EMSC, VESID and Higher Education—and the State Aid Subcommittee as well as the Full Board. The support for these ideas has been obvious: two gubernatorial commissions, field reaction to the Regents state aid proposal, and in conversations with almost a hundred educational leaders in recent weeks. What is needed now is an omnibus proposal that is feasible, productive, and representative of the consensus on cost containment and achievement. The Regents can be the catalyst to create that proposal because the Board has already taken forceful positions that balance both aims, and has the authority to take still more action.

We have listened to superintendents around the state representing, association leaders, including NYSCOSS, NYSUT, and NYSSBA, all District Superintendents, and groups of education and county leaders. We have learned that there are many regional discussions going on now, some of them involving not only educators but also school boards and county officials. While there is a wide array of ideas being discussed locally, the core with the broadest support seems to include these: regional transportation, shared services of many kinds through BOCES, mandate relief, and various approaches to contain special education costs. These ideas are also included in the Regents state aid proposal. Each of those topics involves technical and political complexities. It is encouraging that the response to these ideas appears to be not only support but also an expression of common interest. Other topics inspire support in some quarters but strong opposition in others and so are less likely to succeed as part of an omnibus proposal.

The Regents could assemble a representative group of leaders to help craft a proposal and advocate for it. Creating the details of the proposal requires technical advice from state, regional and local experts. Here are some thoughts on potential elements of a cost containment proposal:

Regional transportation.

There is general agreement that there is massive duplication of capacity in pupil transportation. In several regions superintendents and BOCES leaders are thinking about how to combine transportation systems for public and nonpublic students. Regional solutions might develop quickly if transportation aid and other statutes and regulations encouraged region-wide or county-wide school transportation. While some have spoken of the need for financial incentives, the solution would have to be shown to be less costly in the near term to the state and local districts. And parents would have to be involved in the design from the beginning. Parents will immediately object to changes that in their opinion provide lower-quality transportation service.

Shared services through BOCES

There is broad interest in encouraging voluntary sharing of business office functions through BOCES. The Office of the State Comptroller has raised concerns about maintaining appropriate segregation of duties with the internal auditor function in a BOCES-based central business office, but a reasonable solution could surely be found.

Shared services could be defined broadly to include purchasing, payroll, accounts payable and receivable, data management, facilities management, and energy audits, among others. There is interest in bulk purchasing and just-in-time purchasing using pre-approved vendors. Joint purchasing agreements could produce even greater savings if entities in addition to schools were included. There are examples of regional sharing of energy costs and health benefits that include BOCES but go beyond to include municipal units. There may be a wider array of services that all BOCES would be encouraged to provide, or there might be even greater benefit from encouraging specialization among BOCES and more cross-contracting.

There also are many more educational services that could be consolidated, from curriculum development and related professional development to the creation of regional high schools.

All these ideas are already in practice in a BOCES somewhere in New York, and some have a decade of experience. Creating the proposal could start with those models. In addition, District Superintendents have suggested that SED needs to be more nimble in responding to proposals for combined service agreements. They urge the Board and SED to foster an environment that encourages innovation and responds quickly to proposals.

Mandate relief

The long-standing Regents proposal to consolidate reporting is only one element of mandate relief. Superintendents suggest that some mandated programs, such as Academic Intervention Services, are less effective and more costly than non-mandated services, such as Response To Intervention (RTI). The Board could review the mandates of the last decade and see which ones add value based on experience. On some topics, such as middle school mandates, there are strong views but insufficient consensus for change.

Special education

Special education cost containment suggestions can be controversial but progress is possible. Among the points worth considering are these: New York requires more than other states, and yet those requirements are there for reasons that were hotly debated in the past. The cost patterns and results for special education in New York relative to other states are part of the debate, but alone won’t produce consensus for change. The question of which party in disputes, parents or school districts, has the advantage is also part of the debate, but this issue has been the subject of recent legislation. Nevertheless, the VESID Committee will examine several regulations that would, in the opinion of staff, not harm students but would reduce costs. These are worth careful study.

One approach that seems to have potential is based on an analysis of cost drivers and related practices that tend to control costs. The cost drivers, according to Rebecca Cort, are high classification rates, out-of-district programs, one-on-one aides and other crisis management staff, adversarial proceedings, programs for severely disabled students, and extended years of instruction. All those have a positive side too, but each can be matched with a cost reducer: practices to lower classification by providing services prior to referral, in-district programs, Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, trusting and responsive relationships with parents, early intervention, and strong instructional programs.

Other words of advice from the field

Raising Graduation Rates

In September and again in November, the Regents in committee and full board examined unacceptable graduation rates among three groups of students: black and Latino males, English language learners and students with disabilities. This month Dr. John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, will join the EMSC Committee to discuss strategies to raise graduation rates among black and Latino males. In its most recent report, Given Half a Chance: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males,” the Schott Foundation declared, “A deliberate, intense focus is needed to disrupt and redirect the current educational trajectory for Black males.” Possible policy questions include: Why don’t the young men graduate? What can the Regents do to increase graduation rates? What district practices work? How can the Board encourage school districts to adopt those practices more widely?

A Higher Education Data Profile

The Higher Education Committee requested a comprehensive review of higher education data: what it shows, how and why it is collected, and how it is different from P-12 data in some instance as well as what it implies for Regents policy action. This follows the Board’s discussions about the mid-point review of the Statewide Plan for Higher Education.

Higher education in New York is complex. The four sectors—SUNY, CUNY, independents, and proprietary institutions--offer an extraordinary array of programs for all professions, doctoral research, liberal arts and sciences, technical fields of every kind, and recent immigrants who may have had interrupted education or no education at all. SED staff will outline how data informs decision making and the identification of achievement gaps in higher education. For example, student persistence to sophomore year is an important measure. Many students drop out before they get to sophomore year, but there are institutional practices that can overcome this problem. Another example is the two year graduation rate. Many students who attend two year colleges and transfer to four year colleges without receiving an associates degree are not identified as graduates.

The Board and SED created a P-12 view of performance data to good effect. This enabled the public and the field to see performance gaps and to address them, securing higher achievement for so many students. The data were instrumental in transforming the state aid system. Data became the foundation for accountability and school improvement strategies. The Board has the same policy lever in higher education. In fact, it has committed to enhance its current structure with a focus on P-16. Consider the case of the opportunity programs. These programs help students who initially do not meet academic requirements for admission to higher education and lack the economic resources to attend. Yet the students admitted to the opportunity programs overcome the barriers and complete higher education at rates that approach the graduation rate of their institutions. The data reveal their success and illustrate a need for sustained investment in programs that work.

Thinking About Grade 3 through 8 Testing

In December the EMSC Committee discussed cycle-time improvements that could release grades 3-8 English Language Arts and Mathematics test results within 10 weeks of the administration of the test. The committee also discussed the possibility of changing the testing calendar in a future year to provide for test administration in the spring. Further discussion and more information would be necessary before a decision could be made. This month the committee will consider how other states administer tests and potential benefits and drawbacks of moving the test administration to the spring. Future topics could include: feedback from the field on changing the testing schedules; logistics and costs associated with scanning and scoring the tests; how performance levels are set, the meaning and use of test results, and the next generation of tests for value-added accountability.

NCLB Reauthorization

Three committees and the full Board will discuss proposed revisions to the Regents recommendations for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to reflect experience since the Board first adopted recommendations in 2007 and to prepare for discussions with the Obama administration and a new Congress. Here are some of the recommended priorities: greater state and local flexibility to implement innovative practices, P-16 data systems, support state early childhood programs, including universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, more flexible, less constrained growth models of accountability, appropriate assessments for certain students with disabilities and English language learners, expansion of career and technical education programs, and increased investment in educational technology and access to digital content.

Public Accountancy Act Advances

SED has worked with stakeholders for a decade to bring the public accountancy practice law into alignment with a profession that has evolved significantly since the last major statutory change in 1947. This has been a Regents legislative priority for the last six years. The Assembly passed a bill in June and the Senate did in December. It is with the governor for consideration. Should it become law New York will have achieved a significant advance in public protection. The Professional Practice Committee will discuss and celebrate this achievement.

Special Education Dispute Resolution

The VESID Committee will discuss a staff report that describes the due process systems available for students with disabilities. It addresses mediation, impartial due process hearings, and the state complaint process, and summarizes the number of requests at each level and how they were resolved. Also included are brief suggestions of actions to improve each part of the system.

Due process is an essential part of the rights afforded by law to parents and children with disabilities. Ensuring the effective operation of this system through continuous improvement is important to accomplishing the aim of due process. The report makes a useful contribution to the search for ways to control costs. For example, Rebecca Cort’s testimony to the Commission on Property Tax Relief pointed to the benefits of avoiding adversarial relationships by building trusting relationships and using mediation where possible. The Regents item notes that “when mediation sessions are used, approximately 93 percent result in agreements between parties to settle the dispute.”

CUNY Master Plan

Every four years the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) are required to submit a master plan to the Board of Regents for approval and incorporation into the Statewide Plan for Higher Education. This month the Regents Higher Education Committee will consider the CUNY 2008-2012 Master Plan. It identifies the university system’s priorities and initiatives to meet its educational mission. The Department asked that the plan specifically relate to the Statewide Plan’s five priority areas. Between October 2007 and June 2008 CUNY engaged its entire university community in the development of the new master plan before its adoption by the Board of Trustees and submission to the Regents. The Regents will receive copies of the complete plan as well as a review prepared by staff that addresses how it connects to the Statewide Plan priorities.