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Published in Print: March 25, 2015, as Gov. Cuomo's Budget Sparks Backlash in N.Y.

Gov. Cuomo's Budget Riles N.Y. Unions, Protesters

A protester outside the New York state Capitol in Albany marches this month with supporters of public education. Hundreds of public school students and parents rallied at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to reject Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reforms.
A protester outside the New York state Capitol in Albany marches this month with supporters of public education. Hundreds of public school students and parents rallied at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to reject Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reforms.
—Mike Groll/AP

Proposal aims to toughen teacher evaluations

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Do schools need more money or greater accountability?

That age-old education debate, currently playing out between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state's teachers' union, is becoming a powder-keg thanks to the fallout from the governor's budget proposals.

At issue is Gov. Cuomo's 2015-16 budget request for education, which would predicate some $733 million in new aid on lawmakers' acceptance of provisions to increase the weight placed on standardized test scores in teachers' evaluations and to make it harder for teachers to earn tenure.

Although so far there seems to be a mixed appetite among lawmakers to approve those changes, the state's teachers' unions are taking no chances, supporting protests by parents and others against the proposals.

And they are using those newfound alliances to hammer home a long-standing complaint that the governor has refused to meet the requirements of a 2006 court ruling demanding more money for the schools.

Evaluation Debate

Gov. Cuomo's focus on teacher evaluation escalates long-standing tension in the state over revisions to how teachers are graded.

New York won $700 million in the federal Race to the Top competition in 2010, largely on the strength of a law, supported by both union and state officials, linking teacher evaluations to student achievement.

But almost since the ink dried on that legislation, the two sides have disagreed about how to implement the law, especially over the question of how much of each teacher's rating should depend on student test scores.

Mr. Cuomo has put the technique of conditioning education aid on policy changes to effective use before. In 2012, he required districts to settle with their unions on a final teacher-evaluation system in order to receive a portion of their total funding.

But beginning last year, Mr. Cuomo began to express dissatisfaction with the results of the new rating systems, noting that nearly all teachers are being given good scores—just as they had under the former evaluations.

Gov. Cuomo's 2015-16 budget proposal attempts to tighten the evaluation rules and throws in a host of other policy alterations, many opposed by the unions.

Among other actions, he wants the budget deal to:

  • Increase students' standardized-test scores to 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, and require at least one observation to be conducted by someone outside a school.
  • Require teachers to earn five evaluations of "effective" or better before being eligible for tenure.
  • Make it easier to dismiss teachers who have received poor evaluations.
  • Use $8 million to appoint receivers to oversee failing schools or districts.
  • Increase the state charter school cap by 100 schools, bringing it to 560.
  • Use $100 million to support tax breaks to donors who help provide scholarships for parents to send their children to private schools.

In all, Mr. Cuomo's tactic "positions him where the leverage is—with the budget process. He is a great tactician," said Derrell Bradford, the executive director of NYCAN, an education advocacy organization that supports the governor's plan. "The challenge is that, because there is so much in it, it has been difficult to explain."

Indeed, the plan doesn't appear to have won over a broad swath of the public. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that less than a third of registered voters in the state gave Mr. Cuomo good marks on his handling of education. And 55 percent said they trusted the teachers' unions more than the governor to improve education. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Unions are capitalizing on the public's reservations, supporting protests by thousands of parents and students outside of schools and at the statehouse in Albany earlier this month.

The debate, union leaders contend, isn't really about teacher evaluation, and can instead be summed up in a single word: politics.

Competing Proposals

New York State United Teachers declined to give an endorsement in Gov. Cuomo's successful re-election bid in 2014, and it has criticized the state's roll-out during his tenure of everything from the Common Core State Standards to new teacher-licensing tests.

In return, union officials say, the governor's proposals are aimed at undermining the unions, stirring up concern about teacher quality to distract from what they say is a more important problem: underfunding of schools.

"Rational people are mystified by what is happening in New York State, because it does feel like settling scores, not what one needs to do to help all kids," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of NYSUT's parent unions. "The governor is being the bully in the schoolyard."

The unions say they're particularly frustrated that Gov. Cuomo's budget doesn't include the extra financing needed to meet the state's commitments resulting from a ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's education-funding lawsuit dating from 2006. (The state agreed in 2007 to add more than $5 billion to schools, but froze its payments during the Great Recession and has not yet resumed them.)

The president of the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's and the AFT's largest affiliate, accused Gov. Cuomo of doing the bidding of hedge-fund supporters who contributed to his re-election campaign, and who generally support charter schools and criticize the unions.

"If he wants to play political brinksmanship on this, that's going to be his call," Michael Mulgrew said. "But if he does, you're going to see probably one of the nastiest fights ever in the state of New York."

Despite the attention stirred up by the recent protests, the unions are in a potentially weaker position in New York than before. A key NYSUT ally, the former House Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was indicted on ethics charges in January.

How the legislative wrangling will play out before the state's April 1 budget deadline remains to be seen. Mr. Silver's successor, Carl E. Heastie, a Democrat, did not include the alterations that Gov. Cuomo has sought in a draft budget bill. His proposal calls for an increase of about $1.8 billion in education funding—far above the $1.1 billion Mr. Cuomo wants even if all his recommendations are adopted.

The Republican-controlled Senate's spending plan, meanwhile, includes the governor's charter school cap increase and the tax-credit proposals, but doesn't address teacher-quality policies. It would put about $1.9 billion into education, in all.

It remains unclear whether Gov. Cuomo, who has prided himself on completing budget deals on time, would compromise on his policy priorities. A spokesman for the governor didn't immediately return a request for comment.

National Resonance?

Where teacher evaluation is concerned, Mr. Cuomo's proposals stand in contrast with recent actions in other states.

Facing lawsuits from their own unions and what appear to be increasing concerns about the extent of student testing, states such as Tennessee and New Jersey have scaled back the weight placed on test scores in teachers' reviews. A proposal to that end is also making its way through the Florida legislature. Other states, with the U.S. Department of Education's blessing, have delayed linking test scores to teacher evaluation.

"What's hard to know is if it's permanent. A lot of states have done it for the short term, during the testing transition" to common-core aligned tests, said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy organization. Still, she said, Mr. Cuomo "is really putting his neck out."

Related Blog

But in New York, other pressures continue to bring teacher issues back to the table. Those include a lawsuit, Davids v. New York, that seeks to declare the state's rules for teacher tenure and dismissal unconstitutional.

A Staten Island judge recently cleared that lawsuit for trial. NYSUT is appealing that decision.

Vol. 34, Issue 25, Pages 17,19

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