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Cuomo draws battle lines for education fight

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at a campaign event at Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education in the Bronx on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

As a new legislative session approaches in Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is targeting sacred cows of education policy. For the most part, it appears the Board of Regents agrees with him.

Cuomo's state operations director recently sent a letter to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and departing education Commissioner John B. King Jr. It pointed out that statewide only 34.8 percent of students are proficient in math, only 31.4 percent are proficient in English and only 37.2 percent of graduating high schoolers are ready for college.

Those unacceptable statistics are in sharp contrast to the latest statewide teacher performance figures, which rated 95.6 percent of teachers either highly effective or effective. Those numbers just don't add up. Still, the unions were surprised when Cuomo vetoed a "safety net" bill on Dec. 29 that would have protected teachers for two years from the consequences of the new evaluation system. The unions thought they had a commitment from Cuomo to sign the measure, but he turned the tables on them after the new statistics were released. In fact, the veto, combined with Cuomo's reiteration last week that he will lobby for students, a pledge he first made two years ago but has at times seemed to waver on, signals a rededication to fighting for change.

The letter asked Tisch and King, who left Friday for the No. 2 post at the federal Department of Education, pointed questions sure to stir up teachers unions and set the outlines of Cuomo's next big policy fight. The queries involve increasing the number of charter schools; offering advanced placement courses taught by non-public school teachers, such as college professors; toughening teacher training and certification; streamlining the teacher firing process and pursuing school district mergers. The Regents responded with a 20-page letter outlining possible improvements, including basing more of teachers' evaluations on state tests, setting some standards for the non-test portions of those evaluations and extending the probationary period of new teachers from three years to five so poor performers could be let go more easily.

In short, the governor and the Regents are on the same page except on two issues: money (the Regents want a $2 billion hike in school aid that's far larger than Cuomo will support) and power (Cuomo would like more say in selecting Regents and the commissioner, although he won't get it).

The Regents' letter also highlighted another problem too rarely confronted statewide: Segregation, both racial and economic, has led to huge disparities in education funding and facilities from district to district. As long as those gaps are not effectively addressed, achievement gaps will persist.

Cuomo believes educators care about kids, but that the education bureaucracy's only mission is maintaining the status quo. He has enormous power over education spending and should use that as leverage in 2015 to fashion further education reform, including a more meaningful teacher evaluation system. The Regents say they're on his side. That leaves the State Legislature, which must be convinced, and the teachers unions, which likely will have to be forced to fall into line.


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