New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens during the regional economic...

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens during the regional economic development council awards in Albany, on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY -- A rhetorical war escalated Thursday, as the state's largest teachers' union accused the Cuomo administration of being ignorant about public education, beholden to Wall Street billionaires and prepared to go back on its word about teacher evaluations.

It was just the latest exchange between the New York State United Teachers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat. On Wednesday, Cuomo questioned the credibility of evaluations released this week that showed 98 percent of teachers statewide rated "effective" or "highly effective." Cuomo said the number doesn't "reflect reality," and added he wanted to "go back to the table" on teacher evaluations, just months after he and state legislators agreed on a bill addressing the issue.

Raising the pressure, a Cuomo aide Thursday sent a letter to the state Board of Regents -- which governs state education policy -- asking it for ways to more easily fire ineffective teachers and expand a teacher's probationary period. Jim Malatras, Cuomo's operations director, took a shot at the union, writing: "The education bureaucracy's mission is to sustain the bureaucracy and the status quo and therefore it is often the enemy of change."

That outraged NYSUT, which said the "questions and questions" raised in Malatras' letter signal "ignorance about what parents want and the real issues facing public education" and "do the bidding of New York City hedge fund billionaires," a reference to Cuomo receiving campaign contributions from financiers who back charter schools and other education-policy changes.

"If the governor wants a battle, he can take the clueless New York City billionaires," said NYSUT President Karen Magee. "We'll take the parents, teachers, higher education faculty and students in every ZIP code of the state."

Cuomo has battled NYSUT through most of his four years in office over evaluations, charter schools, the Common Core academic standards and education funding. The governor has said he wants "real performance measures" to help break the "monopoly" of traditional public education. He also supports charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Local teacher unions protested the governor's appearances through the spring, including at the state Democratic Party convention in Huntington.

Later, the union declined to endorse anyone in the governor's race and helped block the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for unions around the state, from supporting Cuomo.

Last spring, Cuomo and state legislators agreed on a bill to delay tying teachers' evaluations to students' performance on high-stakes tests. But Cuomo has yet to sign or veto that bill.

Despite backing that bill, Cuomo, at a stop to promote casinos Thursday, said more needed to be done. "I want to focus on education reform," Cuomo said in Schenectady. "Let's actually do something and stop talking."

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