Education battle cools at Capitol

ALBANY -- A year ago, the state’s teachers union was furious. Reforming the state’s education system was a heated topic of discussion at the state Capitol, largely because  Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his $142 billion budget proposal to push for major changes – including a new teacher-evaluation system more reliant on student test scores.

Cuomo ultimately succeeded – much to the union’s chagrin.

“We know the truth: Cuomo wants to pile on high-stakes testing, privatized classrooms and divert money away from public schools by giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy,” an April television advertisement for the New York State United Teachers union said.

Flash forward to this year.

The two warring sides – Cuomo and the teachers union – have reached something of a détente, at least when it comes to policy issues.

And the debate over education in this year’s state budget has been more traditional: Instead of battling over proposals that have nothing to do with dollars and cents, Cuomo and school interests are fighting over funding levels for local schools.

“There are still areas of policy disagreement but they’re being discussed within the context of the budget, and they’re more traditional discussions than we saw last year,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said. “But issues remain: We believe that the governor’s state aid proposal falls short of what’s needed.”

Last year, Cuomo made education reform a hallmark of his 2015 agenda. He pushed the Legislature to pass an education plan as part of the budget in March that included the teacher evaluation changes, reforms to teacher tenure protections and a system for the state to more easily make changes in long-struggling school districts.

Plenty happened since then.

Protesting parents held out 220,000 students from taking the state’s tests for grades 3-8 last April, marking about 20 percent of the eligible pool. The protest was centered on the “high-stakes” nature of the tests and the pressure they put on students.

Not long after, Cuomo created a Common Core Task Force to examine changes to the oft-debated standards and the tests that are based on them. The panel ultimately recommended preventing the use of Common Core-based test scores on teacher ratings for four years -- a pause that was backed by Cuomo and the state Board of Regents.

It set the stage for a quieter education debate when lawmakers returned to the state Capitol in January. And the cooling tension in the Capitol has been noticeable – even on the television airwaves.

“As a result, Governor Cuomo’s task force recommended sweeping changes, the state is committed to a total reboot and the Regents are acting,” a January TV ad from NYSUT says. “That’s progress, but we’re just getting started.”

Parent groups that helped lead the test-refusal movement aren’t pleased – neither with the governor nor the teacher’s union, which provided a boost to the opt-out protest last year by offering public support.

Bianca Tanis, a special-education teacher and member of New York State Allies for Public Education’s steering committee, said the union and state lawmakers should be taking steps to reverse some of the Cuomo-backed reforms through law.

NYSAPE is one of the parent groups who helped lead the opt-out movement. She’s also part of a new effort – New York Rank & File – calling on the union to call for more legislative change.

“Yes, there’s a moratorium on using state test scores to evaluate teachers, but the law says teacher evaluations must be based in part on a performance measure,” said Tanis, a mother of two from New Paltz, Ulster County. “So we’re simply swapping out one test for another.”

In his State of the State address in January, Cuomo touted the changes his task force recommended, saying they were aimed at rebuilding “parental trust.”

“Our goal was to restore that trust and we said we would correct the state Education Department’s Common

Core curriculum implementation mistakes and testing regimen,” Cuomo said. “Time has shown that this was the right decision.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, said his group – a coalition of business and school groups supportive of the Common Core education standards – has been pleased that the level of contention at the Capitol has appeared to ratchet down.

His group is a coalition of business and school groups that support the Common Core, the more-stringent standards that have become a flashpoint for the education debate across the state and country.

“The best thing that could happen for the Common Core standards and the state assessments is ratcheting down the rhetoric and the politics – letting them live in the classroom instead of live in the political arena,” Sigmund said.

Meanwhile, the debate over school funding – a perennial battle as lawmakers and Cuomo hash out a state budget – continues.

Cuomo has pushed for a roughly $990 million increase on the $23.3 billion the state set aside for schools last year.

But a coalition of school groups, including NYSUT and the state School Boards Association, and the state Board of Regents are pushing for a $2.4 billion increase.

And state lawmakers are likely to push for a bigger boost, as well, with Senate Republicans vowing to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment – a series of school-aid cuts dating back to the recession – this year.

“We will end the GEA this year,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino, R-Nassau County. “We want to make sure that (education) foundation aid is maintained and that it’s spread around and schools are getting what they need to do what needs to be done.”
 


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