ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from Day One in office has put a target on the back of the state's education establishment. It's all by design.
"Ineffective," Cuomo said in an interview in the state Capitol when asked to describe, in a word, how he viewed the state's school system upon taking office. "Here's another word: wasteful. Bureaucratic. Commercialized."
Whether it's a new teacher-evaluation process, spending cuts or New York's first property-tax cap, the first-term Democrat has made schools a battleground. Last week, he launched a far-ranging "education commission" with wide latitude to recommend "top to bottom" changes in the school system.
While critics say the governor is using schools -- and teachers -- as piñatas to score political points and stoke national ambitions, Cuomo said he sought to upend the usual way of doing things when it comes to schools "because that's what the people of the state asked me to do" when he was elected in 2010.
"I could have said, 'Not my job. I don't do education. Go talk to the building around the block,' " Cuomo said, referring to the state Board of Regents, located across the street. The board, New York's education-policy-making panel, is one of the few state government entities that a governor doesn't control. Aside from fighting over funding, most governors have left education to the Regents.
"That's not why I was elected," Cuomo said.
The governor, who once called school governance "the most intractable problem" he faces, said he believes he's made "dramatic progress" in reshaping how state government approaches education.
Unions knock Cuomo
Unions say the governor is using schools as a scapegoat for New York's fiscal problems.
"Maybe instead of saying he's shaking up education, I'd say he's shaking it down," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union and historically one of the most influential players in state politics.
"In many ways, the governor has spent the first half of his term putting down education," Iannuzzi said. "I think every governor needs education to have a prominent place on their agenda." But under Cuomo, "its place. . . is to decimate the education ranks through massive cuts or the property-tax cap."
Cuomo's comments came about a week before statewide school vote day, May 15, which represents the first votes taxpayers will cast since Cuomo signed the tax-cap law in June 2011. It is by far the Cuomo initiative that has caused the most flap in the education world.
The cap law requires school districts that want to raise tax levies by more than 2 percent to obtain a 60 percent "supermajority" vote from the public, mirroring a tax cap law enacted in Massachusetts two decades ago. The New York law includes exceptions for pension costs and other items that, this year, pushed the average levy hike statewide to 2.4 percent.
Just 49 of the nearly 700 school districts in the state are proposing to override the cap. On Long Island, 16 of 124 school districts will propose an override. Cuomo said the relatively low growth rate shows the cap is working "better than I imagined."
Cuomo likes to say that New York's per-pupil spending tops the nation, but that its graduation rate ranks in the bottom half of states. Iannuzzi said the rate is low overall because of problems in urban, high-poverty areas and that New York consistently is ranked among the top three states nationwide in education quality -- facts the governor ignores.
Not enough done, say some
Other critics say that, besides the property-tax cap, none of Cuomo's initiatives really shake up education. They argue that if he were serious about changing the establishment, he'd try to repeal the Triborough Amendment, a law that keeps existing teacher contracts in place if a new one isn't reached, guaranteeing salary increases.
Some point out that the new teacher-evaluation process -- including rating teachers based on students' scores on standardized tests -- didn't substantially change what was already on the books. And they note that he went nearly a year before appointing a deputy secretary for education, raising questions about how high on his agenda schools rank.
"The most significant change that's been implemented has been funding cuts, combined with the property-tax cap," said Billy Easton, spokesman for the Alliance for Quality Education, an activist group that says the state is shortchanging urban schools in particular. "I think a number of other things that have been raised are just distractions."
Some say Cuomo's possible interest in running for president someday has shaped his approach.
"It's almost as if he has decided 'If I'm going to run nationally, I have to get behind this anti-teacher stuff, that having the teachers' union against me won't hurt me,' " said Jeff Stonecash, a Syracuse University political scientist.
Cuomo has said talk of running for higher office is distracting, and that he's focused on being governor. He also staunchly denied being anti-teacher. He said reining in spending isn't about wanting to see teachers laid off, but rather about getting taxes under control.
"I believe in teaching. I think it's a great profession and I honor people who dedicate themselves to it," he said. "That has nothing to do with the system and economics of education. My mother was a teacher. But this is about the system."
Cuomo 'forcing discussion'
State legislators have backed most Cuomo education initiatives, if at times grudgingly. They say they don't always agree with him, but acknowledge he's changing education politics.
One tax-cap impact that is likely to become apparent soon, Flanagan said, is that it will force school boards to think hard before agreeing to teacher raises.
Cuomo said he hopes it changes the nature of negotiations.
"They are going to have to negotiate a contract that is based in economic reality," the governor said. "They can say to the union: I'm getting [a] 3 percent [increase in tax levies]. I can't give you what I don't have."
Cuomo said that without a cap it's too easy for school boards to say yes to everything -- while taxes soar.
"I want a raise -- great! I want a new building -- great! I think we should have buses with video monitors -- great!" said Cuomo, mimicking a back-and-forth. "I mean, it's easy to say yes and then the budgets just go up and up. And that's what we saw for a lot of years."