School & District Management

N.Y. Governor Aims to Flex Muscles on Education Policy

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 13, 2015 7 min read
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who kicked off his second term as governor this month, has signaled his intention to shake up the status quo on education policy in the state. Last month he vetoed his own bill that would have protected some teachers and principals from poor evaluations.
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As he plunges into his second term, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared his ambition to push for major and controversial changes to education policy that could put him at odds with leading K-12 officials—and, in some respects, his own record.

As a sign of his intense dissatisfaction with the status quo of New York’s K-12 system, Gov. Cuomo last month vetoed his own bill—approved by legislators last year—that for two years would have shielded teachers and principals from poor ratings stemming from new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

And in a letter last month sent on his behalf by a subordinate, Gov. Cuomo asked Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch of the state board of regents about the viability of a variety of policy changes, including raising the cap on the number of charter schools; making it easier to remove “poor-performing educators” from schools; merging or consolidating districts; and doing away with the system of letting state legislators pick the chancellor and other board members.

Back and Forth

Ms. Tisch’s extensive response two weeks later, in which she proposed that lawmakers seriously reconsider teacher tenure and other issues, will likely only add to the intrigue around public school policy in New York state in 2015, especially given the recent departure of state Commissioner of Education John B. King.

“Everything is up for grabs this year,” said David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. “Education seems to be taking center stage.”

Gov. Cuomo’s rejection of his own legislation on educator ratings may be unusual. But the Democratic governor’s creation and support of the bill in the first place, along with his rhetoric during his 2014 re-election bid echoing national anxiety about the impact of standardized testing, have proved to be exceptions to the governor’s usual approach to K-12, said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“In my mind, some of this is less backtracking than returning to course,” said Mr. Henig of Gov. Cuomo’s post-election strategy.

In addition, the departure of Commissioner King, who was appointed by the board of regents in 2011 and oversaw the state’s $700 million federal Race to the Top grant, could create a natural opportunity for Gov. Cuomo to increase his influence and renew his feud with the state teachers’ union. Mr. King left at the start of this year to serve as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

‘Little Power Over Education’

It’s unclear to what extent Gov. Cuomo’s approach will mirror that of his fellow Democrat and neighbor, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Mr. Malloy also pursued sharply debated changes to state policy and clashed with unions early in his term but softened his public stance about testing during a successful re-election bid. (Unlike Mr. Cuomo, Gov. Malloy has the power to pick the state’s next permanent education commissioner—the current Connecticut schools chief, Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, was approved by the state board of education last week on an interim basis.)

But the letter sent to Chancellor Tisch on Gov. Cuomo’s behalf last month by New York state’s director of operations, James J. Malatras, was particularly blunt about the “unacceptable” rates of proficiency on English/language arts and math tests and the share of students deemed “college ready” as determined by state exams. All are below 40 percent.

Mr. Cuomo also has criticized the share of teachers who get high ratings in contrast to the relatively low test scores of New York students on the common-core-aligned tests the state shifted to in 2013. That ratings system was agreed upon less than three years ago between the state education department and the state teachers’ union.

“As you know, the governor has little power over education, which is controlled by the board of regents,” Mr. Malatras wrote to Ms. Tisch. “The governor’s power is through the budget process, and he intends to introduce the reforms during that process.”

Chancellor’s Response

In a Dec. 31 response, Ms. Tisch floated her own proposals to satisfy some of the governor’s top concerns, but rejected the idea from Mr. Cumo’s office to overhaul how the state regents are selected. (South Carolina is the only other state where legislators select state school board members, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.)

However, Ms. Tisch also deflected the governor’s assertion regarding power over policy, writing that Mr. Malatras’ letter dealt with matters of state law “which are under the direct control of the state legislature and the governor” and not the regents.

One of the chancellor’s prime targets in her 20-page letter was local collective bargaining. For example, Ms. Tisch proposed eliminating “locally selected measures” of student achievement in the educator evaluations that are determined through negotiations between districts and their respective unions. (These are the evaluations for the 20 percent of teachers that have student-growth scores on state tests.)

Ms. Tisch argued that eliminating those local measures of student achievement could ultimately reduce testing, “thereby addressing the most frequent parent concern” with state evaluation law.

In a separate but also highly contested policy area raised in Mr. Malatras’ letter, Ms. Tisch suggested extending the probationary period before most appointed teachers receive tenure to five years from three, “so boards of education have additional time to evaluate their performance.”

Veto Puzzle

In public statements explaining the veto of the “safety net” evaluation bill, Gov. Cuomo said the high share of teachers (97 percent) receiving one of the top two ratings for the 2013-14 school year made his bill unnecessary.

Yet the governor’s office pushed that legislation after similar evaluation results for the 2012-13 school year, when (despite some differences from the 2013-14 evaluation system) 95 percent of teachers in the state were deemed either “effective” or “highly effective.” Gov. Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill had the support of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT. In response to the veto, the union blasted the governor, saying, “We can’t understand why he is refusing to sign his own bill.”

The union, which is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, also asked why teachers were now not protected from the tests’ impact on their evaluations, while students’ ability to graduate won’t be affected by those tests until the class of 2022.

But in a subsequent interview, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee struck a different tone. She said she “wasn’t surprised” by the veto because the governor, along with Ms. Tisch, continued to put a priority on “cookie cutter” state politics over good policy by raising the idea of reducing the power of local unions.

“It’s like someone else going out and buying a pair of shoes for me,” Ms. Magee said. “This is a big indicator of state government trying to take away local autonomy.”

On evaluations and other issues, she hammered state officials for, in her view, imposing their desires on local communities and shortchanging districts on state aid for the past five school years through a formula—known as the gap-elimination adjustment—that has reduced each district’s allocation of state aid from previous levels.

It remains unclear how the tense atmosphere will affect business in the state legislative session that opened last week. Control of the New York legislature is split, with Democrats holding the Assembly and a Republican-led coalition running the Senate.

“The governor has to decide, to an extent, how much he wants to try to change the relationship between the branches of government,” said Sen. John J. Flanagan, a Republican and chairman of his chamber’s education committee. “Does he want to have a system that he wants to be more accountable to the governor, at the end of the day, not unlike mayoral control? Or does he want to be hands-off?

Areas of Consensus

Mr. Albert, of the school boards association, said there’s a broad consensus for the state “to go back to the drawing board” on teacher evaluations to address a variety of concerns. And Mr. Henig, of Teachers College, said there’s a gap between the rhetoric and long-term calculations by key players.

“They’re all, I think, reasonably sophisticated about this,” Mr. Henig said of Gov. Cuomo, Ms. Tisch, and others. “They’re not ideologues with visions of vanquishing their enemies and implementing a radically new agenda. They see this as a game of inches and progress.”

But Mr. Albert conceded that the prospect of a new slate of state-driven policy changes on the heels of districts’ multiyear efforts to adjust to the Race to the Top initiative, is a challenging one: “It’s hard when you have a constantly moving target.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Governor Aims to Flex Muscles on Education Policy


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