Governor to Bet Billions on SUNY

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Envisioning a dramatically greater role for universities and colleges in the remedial education of secondary students, the Spitzer administration is planning to pump billions of additional dollars into the State University of New York and the rest of New York’s higher education system, sources said.

A higher education commission appointed by Governor Spitzer in May is discussing a concept called “education empowerment zones,” which would provide financial incentives for colleges and universities to collaborate with public high schools and middle schools.

The aim is to shift remediation to an earlier point — starting with children as young as 12 — so that more students are prepared for college by the time they graduate high school.

Members of the commission say their goal is to increase the pool of high school graduates who are eligible for four-year college admission by having students perform associate-level degree work earlier on.

In doing so, the commission is hoping to combat a persistent problem: More than half of students entering community colleges require math and reading remediation.

The emerging recommendations appear to represent a second costly prong in Mr. Spitzer’s education strategy.

Despite a projected budget gap of close to $4 billion next year, the governor has promised to increase statewide aid to K–12 schools by $7 billion during his four-year term. This year’s budget included the first installment, a $1.5 billion, or 10%, increase in general fund spending.

In exchange for the new money, underperforming school districts have agreed to develop new tools for tracking student performance, draw up multiyear improvement plans that specify how each new dollar is spent, and allocate the money on programs that fall within a “menu of approved strategies,” such as smaller class sizes and teacher training programs.

Mr. Spitzer has hailed the so-called Contract for Excellence as an accountability mechanism that will raise student achievement and ensure that state dollars are spent more effectively.

“They seem to be assuming that despite a massive increase in K-12 aid, they are still going to have a large number of kids in need of remediation,” the director of the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, E.J. McMahon, said. “It should come out of the school district’s share of the tax dollars. We shouldn’t be spending more on top of more to get less.”

Under the discussed scenario, students who successfully complete the program would be eligible for additional college financial aid and guaranteed placement at a four-year college degree program.

Commission members say they foresee assigning colleges and universities a greater role in helping to develop the curricula of public high schools and middle schools. A plan being discussed involves college faculty members assisting secondary teachers in the teaching of classes and providing tutoring.

The final recommendations are likely to resemble a expanded vision of CUNY’s College Now program, which is a partnership between the city university system and New York City public schools that offers high school students remedial to advanced placement courses, and the “early college” small high schools in New York City established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates schools allow students to earn a high school degree and two years of college credit.

The amount of new state aid accompanying the effort has yet to be decided. A source close to the commission said it’s considering a proposal that would call for spending on higher education to increase by $1.6 billion over the next five years, adding billions of dollars to the state’s general fund budget over the next decade.

On Friday, Mr. Spitzer, in an interview with the president of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, Alan Chartock, suggested that his administration is looking to give SUNY, the largest public university system in the nation, a significant increase in operating aid in next year’s executive budget.

The commission, which is led by a former president of Cornell University, Hunter Rawlings, is scheduled to issue a preliminary report on December 1. Members of the commission, which include the chancellors of SUNY and CUNY and the presidents of Columbia and New York University, declined to discuss its work for attribution because its recommendations have not been finalized.

The state now spends $8 billion on higher education annually, a little less than half of which comes out of the general fund budget, which does not include tuition and fees. The great majority of the money goes to SUNY and CUNY, which together enroll more than 600,000 full-time and part-time students.

The total state budget this fiscal year is $120 billion, $53 billion of which comes from general fund spending.

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