From the 26 July 2010 Lockport Union Sun and Journal (Lockport, NY)

By Bob Confer

I recently wrote a column in which I discussed the need to return to a more localized approach to schooling in which the teachers, school boards, and parents were empowered to determine the curriculum for their schoolchildren and teach accordingly. Nowadays, such local control is grossly subdued as the federal and state governments dictate what and how the teachers can teach, making for a standardized and markedly-dumber student body.

It was fitting that the column came out just before the New York Senate introduced a piece of legislation that would further erode the significance of the community-driven approach to education. Rather than focusing on curriculum, this new attack would aim its sights on the physical environment in which the students learn. The bill was introduced by Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, mirroring a companion bill in the Assembly that’s cosponsored by a trio of WNY legislators (Sam Hoyt, Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Mark Schroeder) and is intended to create the Commission on Education in the 21st Century. The Commission would be charged to evaluate the operational and cost structures of the entire educational system in the Empire State and recommend which schools/districts should close and consolidate, recommendations that would be put into law by the legislature and Governor.

This is eerily similar to the infamous Berger Commission which a few years back swept through the state with its findings on what hospitals and care centers needed to be closed or have their functions re-assigned. As with the Berger Commission, the state government is overstepping its bounds with the Education Commission. In the case of the Berger Commission, the state interfered in the marketplace and told private enterprises what they could and could not do while, with the Education Commission, the state will be telling communities and local taxing jurisdictions (the school districts) how to do things.

In both scenarios, New York probably may have the upper hand due to its long-running and wrong-headed influence in both functions whereby it substantially funds their operations, giving (recirculating) billions to hospitals or schools. Right or wrong (I know it’s the latter), but definitely because of the giveaways, the state’s bureaucracy has the ability to control what happens since it has a vested interest in the outcome of its investments, showcasing the flaws in mixed economies and mixed governments that strip people of the true personal and community freedom associated with free markets and representative government.

Taxpayers, parents, and school boards – all of them the people who, besides the kids, matter the most in this equation - won’t have a say in the future of their schools; they’ll be forced to do what the state says. Remember the activism that occurred statewide when residents were told the local hospitals that birthed their children or saved their lives were set to close? That ire will be nothing compared to what will happen when a faceless and unaccountable government entity tells people that their neighborhood school will be closed or their district – sometimes the only thing that binds a community – will be devoured by a nearby one.

Such decisions - and they are hard ones - need to happen. Statewide, we have too many schools, too many teachers, too many administrators and too many redundant operations. All of those cost taxpayers too much money. But, the design and implementation of the plans to temper such waste are best left in the hands of the local voters and the school boards they empower. Only they know the needs, expectations and limitations of their local residents and their children. Let them decide.

So, how do we make that happen?

First, we must contact our legislators and ask that they vote "no" on the Education Commission. That may prove to be a difficult undertaking as its fashionable for senators and assemblypeople to trumpet the consolidation of school districts (mind you, this is a state legislature that can’t clean its own house). But, if they hear from enough citizens (not to mention the school unions) they may change their tune.

Secondly, we must pursue other options. Earlier this year the New York Reorganization and Empowerment Act (penned by current gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo) became law. This fine piece of legislation allows voters and town/village boards to easily initiate the process to dissolve or consolidate their towns, villages and special districts. School districts, though, were not included in the Act. But, they deserve similar legislation. If Cuomo becomes governor (which is almost certain), this would be something for him to champion at the urging of a populace that deserves the right to manage its own schools.