Senate members meet during opening day of the 2019 legislative...

Senate members meet during opening day of the 2019 legislative session in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 9 Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — State legislators approved a bill on Wednesday to alter New York’s teacher-evaluation process, continuing a fast pace set by the newly minted Democratic majority in the Senate.

Along with teacher evaluations, the Senate and the Assembly approved the so-called “Dream Act,” which would allow state college-aid programs to cover children of adults who are in the country illegally. The Senate also passed a measure Wednesday to make the state’s 2 percent property-tax cap permanent, but the Assembly hasn't approved it.

The teacher bill was not only a high-profile issue in the 2018 legislative session in Albany but also a factor in union campaign spending to successfully end Republican control of the Senate.

The bill would end the mandate that ties teacher evaluations to students’ scores on certain standardized tests. But even supporters acknowledged it doesn’t completely unlink exams and evaluations, leaving 50 percent of a teacher’s appraisal to some measure of student performance. That prompted some critics to say the bill would have little practical impact.

The exact measures would be a subject of school board and teachers’ union bargaining. Supporters said the bill, at minimum, puts the issue back in local officials’ hands.

“We are returning evaluations to local control and saying the use of assessments will be best determined at the local level,” said Sen. Shelly Mayer (D-Yonkers), sponsor of the bill.

At issue is a 2015 law, championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo,  that required 50 percent of  teachers' annual job ratings to be based on their students’ test scores on state standardized tests.

But the fact that half of an instructor’s appraisal will be based on some sort of test or assessment had some lawmakers grumbling that the bill was less than advertised.

“I liken it to the Charlie Brown cartoon where right as he is about to kick the ball, it gets taken away,” Assemb. Edward Ra (R-Franklin Square) said during the Assembly debate.

Others said any bill  ending the link between assessments and evaluations would be likely to be vetoed by Cuomo. So they voted for this one, saying it’s the best practical step they could take.

“Let’s face it, if we completely repeal [the law], the governor will never stand for it and we could be moving on to something worse,” said Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-Huntington).

Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) called the bill “making another mistake” and Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Bronx) vowed to introduce a bill to change the 50 percent requirement. But they voted for the bill.

The Senate approved it, 60-0; the Assembly, 125-6. Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) and Ra were the two Long Island representatives who opposed it.

A Cuomo aide said the governor's budget proposal, unveiled last week, includes a teacher-evaluation initiative that matches the changes contained in the Senate-Assembly bill.  

Andy Pallotta, head of the influential New York State United Teachers, referenced the 2018 elections in applauding legislators: “After some lawmakers turned their backs on New York teachers the last legislative session, our members stood up, raised our voices and sent them packing. Now, we have consensus on the need to fix this system.”

A leader of the “opt-out” test boycott movement said the bill, if signed by Cuomo, would have little impact.

“This absolutely doesn’t remove standardized testing from the evaluation system,” said Jeanette Deutermann,  of Bellmore, chief organizer of Long Island Opt Out, a regional network of parents and educators.

“We’re not saying it has to be absolutely removed, but 50 percent is absolutely too high,” she said.

The bill to make the state's 2 percent property-tax cap permanent sailed through the Senate, 59-2. There was virtually no debate, with only a few senators speaking in favor and voting quickly. 

"The purpose of this bill is to give taxpayers some certainty," said Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport), the bill's sponsor. He said the cap "isn't perfect" and his long-term goal is to boost state aid to schools "so as to reduce the reliance on the property tax, because it is regressive."

The Assembly had no immediate plans Wednesday to follow suit on the tax cap, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said it's not a sign the bill is dead. He said Democrats who control the chamber are discussing the proposal. Others suggested it could be lumped in with adoption of a state budget or changes in rent-control laws.

Cuomo successfully shepherded the tax cap through the legislature in 2011, his first year in office. It requires a 60 percent “supermajority” vote for any school district or local government board to raise annual property taxes more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The law does contain some exceptions for local economic growth that don’t count against the cap. Since  its implementation, 2 percent overrides have been rare.

Rather than make it permanent, lawmakers have always renewed it a few years at a time. It is set to expire in 2020 but typically has been linked, for practical political purposes, with rent-control laws, which expire this year.

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