Cuomo Pledges Education Reform Package In 2015

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will introduce a package of education reforms in his 2015-16 state budget proposal with an eye toward overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system, boosting student performance and strengthening charter schools, according to a letter released today.

The letter, signed by state Director of Operations Jim Malatras and sent on Thursday to outgoing Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, has the Cuomo administration doubling down on the governor’s push to end what he has called the “public monopoly” of education.

The letter ostensibly is the administration seeking input from King and Tisch on what reforms they would propose for the governor to deliver in the State of the State, due to be given next month.

But list of 12 questions aimed at Tisch and King give an indication of what direction Cuomo is headed in:

  • The governor is deeply skeptical the current teacher evaluation system is accurately measuring performance given less than 1 percent of teachers are deemed ineffective,
  • Cuomo raises interest in increasing the state’s cap on charter schools
  • The letter raises the potential for teacher recertification and finding ways of removing teachers who are performing poorly more efficiently
  • Asks about the existing mayoral control of New York City schools, due to expire next June and what changes should be made
  • Merging and consolidating school districts is raised as a potential reform to combat declining enrollment in some districts
  • And Malatras raises questions about the Regents appoints process, seemingly suggesting an eye toward assuming more control over the department.

That public monopoly language is recalibrated somewhat in the letter from Malatras, but nevertheless makes clear Cuomo is growing impatient with a lack of progress on education.

“Several weeks ago Governor Cuomo said that improving education is thwarted by the by the monopoly of the education bureaucracy,” Malatras wrote in the letter. “The education bureaucracy’s mission is to sustain the bureaucracy and the status quo and therefore it is often the enemy of change. The result is the current system perpetuates the bureaucracy but, fails our students in many ways.”

Malatras added the governor has “little power” over education given the Board of Regents — appointed by state lawmakers — hires the education commissioner.

“The Governor’s power is through the budget process and he intends to introduce reforms during that process,” Malatras wrote.

Education Reform Letter by Nick Reisman

Regents: Increase State Aid To Education By $2B

The state Board of Regents on Monday approved its 2015-16 school aid proposal that includes a $2 billion increase in state aid and calls for equitable funding to poor districts as well as a goal of restoring the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

At the same time, the Regents proposed using $500 million of the state’s $5 billion surplus drawn primarily from settlements with large financial institutions to be directed to education purposes.

The blueprint for education spending in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins April 1, is the final one for Education Commissioner John King, who is departing the post for an advisory job at the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

“The Regents have advanced a common-sense proposal that is based in reality,” said State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. “The plan recognizes the ongoing fiscal challenges faced by the State and by local school districts while at the same time advancing critically important investments in programs and services that support English language learners, newly arrived immigrants, CTE (Career and Technical Education) and early childhood programs, and other initiatives aimed at lifting the level of achievement for all students.”

The spending plan also portends a larger battle over education policy and spending ahead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal.

Cuomo has indicated he will back using some of the surplus — which budget hawks have cautioned should be considered for non-recurring expenses — for infrastructure projects, paying down the state debt and for education spending that’s aimed at targeted results.

Regents To Launch Search For King Next Week

The state Education Department just issued a statement officially announcing the departure of Commissioner John King, who has accepted a position in Washington as senior advisor to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and will be leaving his state post at the end of the month.

“I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to work with President Obama and Secretary Duncan,” King said in the SED press release. “Their extraordinary leadership is helping students all across the nation get better prepared for college and careers. I’m excited to become part of that team.”

“I’m also humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to work with Chancellor Tisch, all the members of the Board of Regents and the dedicated professionals at the State Education Department. We have accomplished great things for New York’s students. As a kid whose life was saved by the incredible teachers I had in public schools in Brooklyn, I’m proud to have served my fellow New Yorkers.”

The Board of Regents will waste no time in looking for King’s replacement. A search committee will launch next week, according to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

Tisch pledged a “a smooth and efficient transition,” noting that there is “strong leadership team” in place at SED that will keep things running in the short term. In the long term, the chancellor said, the board is seeking a new commissioner who will “continue to advance the Regents Reform Agenda and support our districts as they implement higher standards to ensure all of our students graduate ready for college and careers.”

Tisch, who has been a steadfast King supporter, called the outgoing commissioner “a remarkable leader in a time of true reform.”

“He spent every moment working to open the doors of opportunity for all our students – regardless of their race, or zip code, or their immigration status,” she continued. “John has transformed teaching and learning, raising the bar for students and helping them clear that bar.”

“In classrooms all across the state, teachers and students are rising to the challenge of higher standards. The positive impact of John King’s work in New York will be felt for generations. We’ll miss his wisdom, his calm leadership and his remarkable courage. But New York’s loss is the country’s gain. He’ll be a powerful force for educational opportunity in Washington.”

U.S. Education Department to Investigate NY Education Funding Concerns

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will be investigating complaints brought forth by two New York school districts that say the state’s funding structure for public schools discriminates against districts with high concentrations of people of color, students whose first language is not English, and students with disabilities.

According to a press release from the Schenectady City School District, this will be the first time the OCR considers a complaint of this kind from a school district.

The complaints were originally brought forth almost a year ago by the superintendents of Middletown City School District and Schenectady City School District.

The OCR first responded that they could not go forward with an investigation because it did not have jurisdiction over some of the parties involved in the complaint. The complaint is against New York state, the state legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the state Board of Regents and the state Education Department.

Now, the investigation will move forward, focusing on the Board of Regents and the Education Department, since the OCR has jurisdiction in those areas.

In the press release, both superintendents said that while this investigation is a good step forward, they’re disappointed in the “lack of response from elected leaders” in New York over what they say is a racial disparity.

Education Groups Call for $1.9 Billion State Aid Increase

Top education groups in the state issued a report Thursday calling for a $1.9 billion increase in state aid for the public school system. That’s up from last year’s increase of $1.1 billion, but the NYS Educational Conference Board says the state is in a good position to invest in education this year, given the $4.8 billion surplus.

The increase, if passed, would bring the total state aid for public schools in New York above $23 billion in the next fiscal year. According to the report, that increase will be used to pay for a small increase in employee salaries, rising health care costs, and a growth in the consumer price index.

But the almost $2 billion request isn’t just to pay for rising costs, it’s also to pay off aid claims from years prior. The report pins the amount currently being shorted from districts at just over $1 billion from the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

In short, the GEA has been a device used by the state to use education funding to ease some of the its own budget issues. Now that the state’s economy is more stable after the recession, education groups are also calling for an accelerated end to the GEA, saying a consistent formula for aid allocations should be put in its place.

They say part of that formula should include new pressures facing schools like the Common Core standards and the about 5,000 immigrant children now living in New York.

These are costs unrelated to what the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act would pay for. That amendment, passed by voters on Election Day, provides funds for schools to improve technological infrastructure.

Instead, this money would be used to maintain what schools are already doing now and “make progress on new initiatives critical to the success of our students and our state,” according to the report. The report says in order to avoid any cuts at all, there must be at least a $1.2 billion increase to begin with.

But even that number has the potential to face obstacles from a Republican controlled state senate. Regardless, education groups say they’re confident about their chances.

“We have to deal with the state budget, we deal with both the governor, we deal with the legislature,” NYS Educational Conference Board Chair John Yagielski said. “The fact that we’re all together on that I think should help in that process.”

Bob Lowry from the NYS Council of School Superintendents told reporters Thursday talks were already in the works with lawmakers, but that no concrete plan on how to sweep the proposal into the budget had been established.

The Educational Conference Board includes the Conference of Big 5 School Districts, NYS Association of School Business Officials, NYS Council of School Superintendents, NYS PTA, NYS School Boards Association, School Administrators Association, and NYSUT.

ECB Report

Voters Say “Yes” on Ballot, Now What?

At least one in every five voters did not vote on the three amendments to the state’s constitution on Tuesday’s ballot, according to official election results. The number seems unimportant at first glance until you translate one-in-five to 20 percent.

Two of the three proposals were passed with less than twenty percent of voters, meaning if the absent one-fifth had chosen to vote on those proposals, the outcome could have been much closer, or potentially different altogether.

The outcome isn’t much different than last year’s casino amendment. The proposal, to approve four casinos in three regions in New York, passed by about 393.5 thousand votes, but more than 500 thousand voters chose not to weigh in.

It should be said as well that these numbers reflect the voters who actually made it to the polls. According to the BOE, there are almost 11 million active, registered voters in New York State. Of those 11 million, only about 3.7 million went out to vote this year leaving turnout hovering around a third of registered voters.

That’s up ever so slightly from last year’s near 30 percent, but down drastically from around 60 percent in 2012.

Regardless, voters in New York have approved this year’s round of proposed ballot amendments, so what’s next for proposals one, two, and three?

Proposal One will not actually require action until after the 2020 census in New York. That census will determine the state’s population and therefore number of required State Senate and Assembly (and Congressional) districts required under state law.

Proposal One creates a 10-person redistricting commission to draw those districts. After the census, legislative leaders will appoint eight of the ten people sitting on the commission. Those eight would then appoint the last two.

Currently, the legislature draws the state’s districts. Because they will now appoint the majority of the commission’s members, critics of Prop One have said the process will be no more independent than it currently is. However, the amendment does have language in place to at least attempt to stray away from bias.

Members of the commission can not be married to a statewide or federal official, can not be a registered lobbyist in either New York or Washington, D.C., and can not have served in the state legislature in the past three years. Of course, this opens the door to former lawmakers who have been out of the state legislature for some time.

Proposal Two is much simpler. The proposal authorizes bills to be electronically sent to members of the legislature. Currently, bills must be physically printed and placed on lawmakers’ desks in order to start the three-day aging process. Now, electronic receipt of the bill will count instead.

Proposal Three allows the state to use $2 billion in bond-funded money to enhance technology in public (and non-public) school districts. The language of this bill indicates that it will take effect immediately after being approved by voters. If you’re curious about how much a certain school district is expected to get, you can find that here.

But what about non-public schools? The proposal actually acknowledges that as well, saying that school districts are required to make funding available to non-public schools in their district, depending on enrollment.

That funding, however, is capped at $250 per non-public student.

NYSUT Sues SED Over Common Core ‘Gag Order’ (Updated)

The statewide teachers union filed a federal lawsuit late Wednesday over the state Department of Education’s policy of requiring teachers to sign confidentiality agreements before scoring tests based on the Common Core standards.

The New York State United Teachers argues in the legal action that the confidentiality requirement — which the labor group says is essentially a “gag order” against teachers is unconstitutional and violates free speech rights.

NYSUT argues the SED policy prevents teachers from raising issues with state testing out of fear of reprisal.

“Teachers must be free to protect their students and speak out when they have concerns about state tests. Instead, they are under a ‘gag order’ to be silent – and that is hurting children,” said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee in a statement. “Teachers are the professionals in the classroom. Their voice is essential to robust public debate about the state testing system. If teachers believe test questions are unfair or inappropriate, they should be able to say so without fear of dismissal or losing their teaching license.”

The legal challenge comes as state education officials believe the implementation of Common Core will be rolled out much more smoothly this school year.

Teachers have raised concerns with Common Core standards and the state Legislature earlier this year adopted changes to implementation for students as well as teacher performance evaluations.

The lawsuit, filed in the North District in Albany, can be read here.

The suit was filed on the behalf of five teachers from Monroe and Columbia counties.

Updated: Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins responds.

“New York’s state testing system is among the most transparent in the country. In addition to posting the criteria used to develop, select, and review every item and every passage, we released 50 percent of this year’s 3rd – 8th grade items with explanations of the correct and incorrect answers. Schools get data on how every student performed on every question. New York State educators are involved in every step of the development process and approve every question. We also released 100 percent of the high school test items and have repeatedly requested additional funding from the legislature necessary to release virtually all 3rd-8th grade test items. Obviously, items to be used on future tests must be kept secure. We look forward to NYSUT’s vigorous support for our budget request.”

NYSUT’s Magee: Use Surplus To Help Poor Schools

The president of the New York State United Teachers union on Wednesday said she hoped the money generated from a series of major financial settlements would be directed to poor school districts.

“I would always like to see money that’s lingering out there go to education,” NYSUT President Karen Magee said on The Capitol Pressroom this morning.

The money — some $3.6 billion — will likely be one of the key budget fights heading into the fiscal year, which begins April 1.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not offered many details on what he plans to propose to do with the money, but raised the possibility of a mix of tax cuts, education spending and infrastructure investment.

His budget office has gone further, suggesting the money may be used for debt service as well.

But the call for increasing education aid, especially for poorer schools, comes as education advocates continue to argue that funding disparities between rich schools and poor schools continue.

“Anything we can do — even though as you said before it is a one-shot — it’s the kind of money we need to see especially in our poorest districts,” Magee said.

NYSUT Passes On Cuomo, Again

The statewide teachers union is poised to unveil its endorsements for the upcoming 2014 elections, and once again, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has failed to make the cut.

An endorsement list obtained by SoP after NYSUT leaders met behind closed doors yesterday outside Albany, shows the union is – as we knew, thanks to the early decision on these races – supporting both of Cuomo’s fellow Democratic statewide officials, AG Eric Schneiderman and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, for re-election.

There is no endorsement in the governor’s race.

It was not immediately clear whether Cuomo had even bothered to seek NYSUT’s support, or if the union had interviewed his opponents – Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Democratic Fordham Law Prof. Zephyr Teachout.

Efforts to reach the union’s spokesman to obtain answers to these questions were unsuccessful.

NYSUT’s new president, Karen Magee, was scheduled for a CapTon interview last night, but cancelled at the last minute because the endorsement meetings went long.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that NYSUT is sitting out the governor’s race. The union did the same thing in 2010, although it did not actively oppose then-AG Cuomo when it came time to decide the AFL-CIO endorsement, which is decided by a weighted vote. (He got the nod).

Magee has made clear since she ousted former NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi this past spring that her members were unlikely to back Cuomo this time around.

It would be generous to describe the relationship between NYSUT and Cuomo as “rocky.” The two have clashed numerous times over everything from the property tax cap and pension reform to teacher evaluations and the Common Core curriculum.

The union is also issuing a slew of legislative endorsements, backing mostly – but not entirely – Democratic Senate and Assembly candidates.

NYSUT chose sides in some, but not all, of the contested Senate races as the Democrats and Republicans battle it out (yet again) for control of the chamber.

However, there are a number of races on Long Island where NYSUT is sitting things out at the moment.

For example, the union did not pick a favorite in the 7th SD race where GOP Sen. Jack Martins is battling Democrat Adam Haber.

It did back Democratic environmental advocate Adrienne Esposito over Republican Islip Supervisor Tom Croci, who was tapped to run when Town Board Member Anthony Senft quit the race in the 2nd SD (Sen. Lee Zeldin is running for Congress).

NYSUT is holding out on a number of incumbent Republican senators. It did not back a candidate in the 4th SD where GOP Sen. Phil Boyle is seeking re-election, or the 6th, where GOP Sen. Kemp Hannon is running againn.

The union notably remained mum on Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, who is running for another term in the 9th SD.

NYSUT is backing all the IDC members save one: Queens Sen. Tony Avella (11th SD), who is facing a strong primary challenge from former NYC Councilman John Liu. Liu has garnered labor support even though the unions are supposedly all in for the IDC-regular Democrat reunification effort.
The union made no endorsement in the 17th SD, represented by Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder, who sits with the GOP; or in the 19th SD, where embattled former Democratic Senate Leader John Sampson is fighting for his political life in the September primary; or in the 32nd SD, represented by conservative Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.

In other contested races, NYSUT supported Democratic candidates including:

Former NYC Councilman Leory Comrie against scandal-scarred Queens Sen. Malcom Smith (this is a primary); Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera over NYC Councilman Fernando Cabrera (also a primary); Dave Denenberg for the seat of former Long Island GOP Sen. Chuck Fuschillo; Democrat Justin Wagner for the seat of retiring Hudson Valley GOP Sen. Greg Ball; Sen. Terry Gipson, who faces a challenge from GOP Dutchess County Legislator Sue Serino; and Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, who is trying to fend off a second challenge from former GOP Assemblyman George Amedore; Sen. Ted O’Brien, fighting a challenge from Republican former Rochester TV anchor Rich Funke; teacher Elaine Altman, who is challenging GOP Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer; and attorney Marc Panepinto, who is trying to unseat GOP Sen. Mark Grisanti.

GOP Sen. Tom Libous made the cut with NYSUT, despite his health and legal troubles. He’s being challenged by former Democratic Vestal Town Supervisor Anndrea Starzak.

For the seat being left vacant by retiring GOP Sen. George Maziarz, NYSUT is backing Republican-turned-Democrat Johnny Destino. It also is supporting Sen. Tim Kennedy over his Democratic primary challenger, Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant.

Stop Common Core Effort a Boon for GOP

Gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino and his fellow members of the GOP statewide slate will be announcing the results of their very successful petition drive to create the independent “Stop Common Core” ballot line for the November general election.

At 9 a.m., the Republicans plan to file more than 62,000 signatures at the state Board of Elections in Albany.

Astorino, his running mate, Chemung County Sheriff Chris Moss; Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci, the GOP state comptroller candidate; and state attorney general candidate John Cahill will then be making public appearances across the state to discuss the filing.

(Moss and Antonacci will be in Syracuse, while Astorino and Cahill will be on Long Island; details of these events appear below).

The Stop Common Core ballot operation was organized by veteran GOP political operative Vince Casale and Astorino’s campaign manager, Michael Lawler.

The Republicans believe this is the largest petition operation in New York history, surpassing the Working Families Party’s 1998 filing, which organizers said included some 60,000 signatures.

In 1994, then-state Sen. George Pataki’s campaign filed about 54,000 signatures to create the “Tax Cut Now” party.

The Stop Common Core operation will qualify in all 27 congressional districts, organizers said. State Election Law requires a minimum of 100 signatures from a majority of districts.

According to Casale, this effort brought together volunteers from across the state – Democrats, Republicans and independents; teachers, students and parents – all united in their opposition to the controversial new standards.

The issue certainly resonates with voters. Yesterday’s Siena poll found 49 percent of New York voters – including 53 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans – believe the Common Core standards should be stopped, which is something Astorino has pledged to do if he’s elected.

Cuomo has sought to distance himself somewhat from the Common Core, taking action this past legislative session to temporarily shield students’ test scores and teacher performance evaluations from being impacted by the state Education Department’s flawed rollout of the standards.

But the governor continues to support Common Core as a concept.

Today is the first day to file independent petitions; Tuesday, Aug. 19 is the deadline. Several thousand more Stop Common Core signatures are expected to be filed by that deadline by Senate and Assembly candidates who also want the additional line.

The GOP isn’t alone in its effort to create an independent line for its candidates to run on in November.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats are doing with the same thing with the “Women’s Equality Party” – an effort to harness the power of the abortion-rights debate, which served President Obama so well in his 2012 re-election campaign.

It just so happens that Cuomo’s running mate, former Rep. Kathy Hochul, is holding the latest in a series of events on the Women’s Equality Party today. She’ll be appearing in Kingston with Democratic state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk.