In the office of the late New York State Assemblyman Frank Skartados, we spent the past year studying and developing alternatives to practices within New York State public education. We began by talking with teachers.
What was immediately clear was what most of us already know: teachers are frazzled. They’re trying to do what’s right both for students and themselves, but they’re up against the usual problems of our culture: staid and slow-moving bureaucracies, the relentless assault of moneyed interests, and a shortage of empathy from large numbers of their neighbors.
During our first few weeks of research we spoke with nearly a dozen educators. Almost everyone asked us if we were aware of what the people of Finland have achieved. We weren’t, so we listened as they described the best-performing students in the world, teachers whose level of training and professional status match those of doctors and lawyers, and a culture-wide regard for education as a sacred human service—not a factory-line process for minting exploitable workers.
The teachers seemed to be on to something. So we contacted Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator, government advisor and author who spends his days trying to show the rest of the world how the Finns achieved what they managed to achieve.
Sahlberg’s first recommendation was an expected one: stop administering standardized tests, which create nightmare versions of real education and serve to punish teachers and schools whose students fail to meet ridiculous and irrelevant federal performance standards.
The people who wrote federal U.S. education law made it tricky to follow Sahlberg’s advice. States are not required to give these tests, but corporate lobbyists working to turn public education into a private business got our national government to threaten to withhold federal money from schools that quit the tests. That might not be a problem, given that Washington provides just four percent—roughly $2.5 billion—of what is spent on education in New York State. But it’s enough to worry N.Y.S. Education Department Regent Judith Johnson and others, because school districts that serve impoverished communities depend on that money.
Education finance experts are divided about whether this threat is real, but if it is, it would mean that we could not abandon standardized testing without risking harm to our poorest students. Even if the feds are bluffing, they are willing to be seen holding the education and futures of impoverished children—often children of color—hostage.
Assuming that they would pull the money, there are both workarounds and comprehensive solutions.
First, it appears that there is money to be saved in quitting standardized testing. Finnish tests, which are administered to a small sample of volunteer students instead of being required for everyone, cost just one-tenth of what the U.S. spends administering its tests.
Second, New York’s method of funding education through property taxes is inherently unjust. Our state constitution obliges the government to provide education to children, but as Assemblyman Skartados was fond of pointing out, it does not require that education be funded by property owners. Since property values are unequal throughout the state, many districts lack the capacity to adequately fund their schools. So the facts of economic inequality negate the state’s guarantee of educational equality.
Steve Gold, who served as Assemblyman Skartados’ Chief of Staff, offers a solution: replace the property tax with a progressive tax on the incomes of those who can afford to pay. Then, inch these taxes up in a fair way until the 4 percent of education spending that the federal government threatens to withdraw is covered. (Because overall taxes would rise for people who rent rather than own property, lawmakers who represent New York City tend not to support this measure. Therefore, this shift in the tax code may be politically possible only if New York City renters, who make up a majority of the population, are exempt from it, and landlords and property owners cover the increase through a comparable rise in property taxes.)
Make this change and New York can afford to drop standardized testing whether or not Washington is bluffing.
This piece first appeared at The Hudson Valley News