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Education issues to play role in statewide elections

Local public school teacher unions, anti-frackers, and other

Local public school teacher unions, anti-frackers, and other activists protested outside a Democratic spring dinner at Villa Lombardi's in Holbrook Tuesday evening, April 28, 2014, where Governor Andrew Cuomo was scheduled to headline the event. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

On the eve of a rally to protest state education policies, Connetquot Teachers Association president Tony Felicio Jr. said he got a call from a friend who was acting as an intermediary with the Cuomo administration.

Joseph Percoco, a longtime aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was trying to get a message to him, Felicio said he was told.

"Call off the rally," Felicio recalled, "and he'll set up a meeting with the governor. Obviously, I didn't do that."

Both the protest, which featured more than 2,000 people, and the apparent attempt to tamp it down illustrate the heightened importance school issues likely will play in this year's statewide elections, experts said. And it also may signal that school politics have changed slightly in just four years, with the emphasis shifting from a property-tax cap to the Common Core academic standards and teacher evaluations.

Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive and likely Republican gubernatorial candidate, has been trying to tie the governor to the new standards, frequently calling it "Cuomo's Common Core."

Cuomo has given the issue new focus in 2014, too. After state lawmakers began the push, Cuomo steered legislation that will delay the use of Common Core exams to evaluate students. And he surprised some by hinting that he's now open to delaying it for teacher evaluations as well, after first opposing it.

Asked about the request to cancel the teachers' protest, a Cuomo official said the administration routinely offers meetings with various interest groups.

Underscoring the political moves, a recent poll showed voters are growing very critical of the Common Core. In February, the Siena College poll found statewide voters evenly split when asked if they were confident the standards would make students more college-ready. By April, the answers changed dramatically: 55 percent statewide said they weren't confident, 38 percent were. In the New York metro suburbs, the spread was greater: 64-32.

A major campaign issue

"There's no question the governor and Astorino have seen movement by angry voters, angry parents and angry teachers on this issue," Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said. "And both campaigns are trying to figure out how to best deal with it. It's going to be a major issue in this campaign."

Greenberg said education always is an important campaign issue and that "it's the most important to a segment of voters." He noted voters often send conflicting messages: favoring the tax cap but demanding quality education, even if it costs more.

One state legislator predicted: "The politics of this issue will grow as the conventions draw near," noting that Republican and Democrat state political conventions are just weeks away. Republicans are gathering May 14-15 in Rye; Democrats will hold their convention May 21-22 in Melville.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi touted the governor's education record.

"Under Governor Cuomo, state investment in education is at an all-time high, reforms have been put into place to add rigor and innovation to the system and New York will be the fourth state in the nation to offer every child statewide full-day prekindergarten, all while taxpayers have been protected from out-of-control property tax increases with the implementation of the tax cap," he said.

Parents joining protests

The protest at Holbrook wasn't the first of its kind. Some legislators and analysts said teachers' unions are primarily responsible for generating unrest, saying the new evaluations scrutinize teachers like never before.

Felicio contended that it's not just teachers, but parents, too.

"It's changing," he said. "Three or four years ago, or maybe five to six years ago, the recession hit. People were losing their jobs. There was a lot of resentment about taxes and teachers' [salaries]. I get it."

The change came when students started bringing home new course loads and facing new tests, he said.

"It turned around when parents started seeing it for themselves," Felicio said. He promised an "even bigger" rally at the Democrats' state convention.

"The way Andrew Cuomo handles the various education issues is going to be among the most fascinating elements of this campaign," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "So much potential ammunition is flying both ways."

He noted that schools have received "huge" aid increases under Cuomo, even with the property-tax cap in effect. The governor's support for charter schools also will benefit him in New York City, Levy said.

It's harder to gauge the impact of Common Core unrest and evaluations at this point.

"The anti-Common Core coalition is an amalgam of people with different gripes who see it all reflected around testing," Levy said. The governor correctly points out he's not in charge of education policy, the state Board of Regents is, Levy said. But still people see Cuomo as the "person with the most power" to deal with it.

"That's why, in the very early stages of the [2014 legislative] session, Cuomo came blasting testing," Levy said. He said the governor also "wants to be seen as a fair broker" on teacher evaluations and "remind people that the average person sees the tax cap as a positive."

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