UFT Lobbying In January, February Tops $150K

The United Federation of Teachers spent more than $150,000 lobbying state government during the first two months of the year, records filed with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics show.

The UFT, which represents teachers in New York City, spent a combined $153,749 on a variety of lobbying-related activities including events at the Capitol, catering, cell phones and other expenses.

The union also reported spending $15,000 to retain the lobbying shop Robinson & Cole LLP.

But the bulk of the group’s money was spent on direct lobbying efforts in January and February as Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to include his education reforms in the state budget which the state’s teachers’ unions vehemently opposed.

NYSUT, the statewide umbrella organization, had vastly outspent UFT, spending more than $600,000 on lobbying efforts in the first two months of the year.

Still, the UFT undertook its own influencing efforts, which included a $50,400 bus rental for a February rally in Albany, a $7,966 catering bill at the reception of the black and Puerto Rican caucus, a $8,891 catering bill for a legislative reception and $23,787 for an in-house phone service.

All told, the amount of money spent lobbying on education issues is north of $800,000 during the first two months of 2015 when taking into consideration the funds spent by the state’s network of charter schools.

Cuomo’s education measures, including a new teacher evaluation criteria, making it easier to fire teachers deemed poor performing and the development of a state receivership plan for schools deemed to be failing were included in the budget.

SUNY Chancellor Urges Students To Not Opt Out

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher on Monday urged students and parents to not sit out this month’s round of standardized testing.

The call to participating in the state tests for students comes the statewide teachers union and a host of advocacy organizations allied with the New York State United Teachers urge parents to have their children opt out of the examinations.

In a blog post this afternoon, Zimpher writes the tests have become a “pawn” in debates over teacher evaluations.

“When it comes to whether students should opt out of standardized testing, no one is actually talking about what’s best for our kids. Standardized tests have become a pawn in political debates about teacher evaluations and we have lost sight of what they are: a way to measure what students know so we can help them improve,” Zimpher wrote.

The debate has grown even more heated after the state budget, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s urging, created a new teacher evaluation system that will grade teachers both on test performance and in-classroom observation.

Students should take the tests, Zimpher argues, in order to provide a road map for determining how well they are doing at this point in their education.

“If we are truly trying to do “what’s best for kids,” we would use standardized test scores to diagnose where we need to improve teaching and learning so that kids come to college ready to succeed,” Zimpher wrote. “We need those results to support students, whether with early intervention when they are falling behind or to guide them toward advanced coursework when they are ahead of the curve. If kids opt out, we risk them being left behind.”

Hochul: Test Opt-Out Could Be A ‘Disservice’ To Children

From the Morning Memo:

Having children opt out of Common Core-based standardized tests could do long-term harm, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul warned on Wednesday while in western New York.

“I understand the stress, I’m a parent I know what it was like,” Hochul told reporters during a stop in Williamstown. “The truth is, I think if you hold you’re children back from this kind of participation, it could be doing them a disservice. But if they want to make an individual decision going down that path, there are consequences in the future that I’d be concerned about.”

The statewide teachers union and its allies are encouraging parents to not have their children participate in this month’s round of standardized testing following state lawmakers approved new teacher evaluation criteria backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul pointed to potential funding that is tied to taking state-based tests, which teachers unions officials deny.

At the same time, there’s a broader competition between New York students and children elsewhere.

“If people opt out all across the state that money is in jeopardy, number one,” she said. “Number two, I want to make sure our kids can win in this competition. It won’t be long before the Common Core methodology and standards will part of the SAT entrance exams.”

She added: “I don’t want our kids to be at a disadvantage. We are in a very competitive environment nationally, not just internationally.”

The growing “opt-out” movement includes a legislative push to have the state Department of Education notify parents of their rights to have students not participate in the tests and is expected to be a dominate debate when lawmakers return to the Capitol later this month.

So far, the opt-out effort has grown to include the New York State United Teachers Union and their allies at the Alliance for Quality Education, the Working Families Party and Citizen Action.

The approved budget would evaluate teachers based on one test, plus in-classroom observation. Local bargaining units can negotiate to include a second test that would be chosen by the state.

NYSUT President Karen Magee acknowledged last month that if enough students choose to not take the test, the results would be diluted enough to not provide a usable analysis for evaluation.

The approved education measure in the budget did include pledges to reduce standardized testing in classrooms. The Department of Education will ultimately determine how much weight to give the tests versus observation.

NYSUT Spends Nearly $600K In First Two Months

Expenses records filed with the state’s lobbying regulator show the education battle show at least $757,093 was spent by both pro-charter school groups or the statewide teachers union during January and February.

The figure is likely to grow when the organizations reveal their March and April lobbying data later in the year with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

The New York State United Teachers union alone spent $591,093 during the first two months of the year, with money being spent on travel to Albany for rallies, advertising and in-house printing and postage.

Records show that during the same time period last year, NYSUT spent a fraction of that amount on lobbying costs: $179,350.

NYSUT’s spending came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a series of changes to the state’s education policies, including a new criteria for teacher evaluations, a strengthening of charter schools and making it easier to close schools deemed to be “failing.”

In the end, Cuomo was able to have the Legislature adopt the evaluation criteria that would require at least one classroom test, plus in-classroom observations for teachers.

The budget includes a receivership plan for struggling schools and makes it more difficult for teachers to obtain tenure.

Overall, the education budget increased school aid by $1.3 billion.

NYSUT reported spending $246,614 on advertising purchases through media consultant Shorr Johnson Magnus. An additional $165,000 was paid to Visuality for advertising expenses, along with $30,000 for website development.

The Miram Group, a consultant firm, was paid $30,000 in February by NYSUT.

The prominent pro-charter and education reform groups did not file itemized spending reports in January and February.

Northeast Charter Schools Network reported spending $16,000, while the Success Academy network retained Albany Strategic Advisors for $120,000 and Bender Cantone for $6,000.

StudentsFirstNY, a group that has been aligned with Cuomo on his education reform measures, reported spending $30,000.

Families For Excellent Schools, which held a massive outdoor rally and concert at the Capitol in March, did not report any lobbying expenses in January and February.

All Aboard The Opt-Out Train

From the Morning Memo:

NYSUT President Karen Magee raised eyebrows when she made a very public call at the height of the budget battle for parents across the state to opt out of the math and English standardized tests that will be administered to third-through-eighth graders this month.

Since then, however, a number of the statewide teachers union’s allies have joined the call, including the labor-backed Working Families Party, Citizen Action of NY (whose head, Karen Scharff, is a WFP co-chair) and AQE.

These groups are providing detailed instructions to parents who want to prevent their kids from taking tests, even as officials warn federal funding could be lost if a sufficient number of students don’t sit for the exams.

The decision of these left-leaning groups to back the growing opt-out movement has formed one of those “strange political bedfellows” situations, in which liberals find themselves advocating for the same thing as Republicans like Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who recently challenged the governor to take the 5th grade ELA and math tests and publicly post his results.

Cuomo has also insisted that he’s trying to reduce the number of standardized tests students have to take in the classroom, but also said in a recent radio interview that testing is the best metric for measuring a school’s progress.

In his executive budget presentation, Cuomo called the current teacher performance evaluation system (that he negotiated with union leaders) “baloney” and called for an overhaul that would have placed 50 percent of a teacher’s score on student test results.

Cuomo didn’t get everything he wanted in the final education deal, but there will be changes to the evaluation system – some of which are left up to the state Education Department, and, by default, the Board of Regents, although they appear to have less power over the situation than some lawmakers have intimated.

The opt-out movement is a clear effort to undermine the evaluation system, though it’s a bit of a double-edged sword, since evaluations are again tied to additional state education aid.

Some Democratic lawmakers are also on board with the effort.

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Cathy Nolan, after signaling her intent to do so during a CapTon interview, has introduced a bill that is aimed at “providing parents with the right and authority to exempt their children from taking standardized assessments.”

Measures pending in both the Senate and Assembly would require the state Department of Education to notify parents of their rights to not have students take standardized examinations.

Last year, some 60,000 students opted not to take the ELA and math tests. Opt-out advocates are hoping that number grows to 250,000 this year.

A group of grassroots activists have launched a crowd funding campaign with the goal of raising $30,000 for an anti-testing robocall, which they hope will be recorded by a yet-to-be-named celebrity. So far, the effort has raised close to $5,000.

The battle over tests is the latest skirmish in a long-standing war between the governor and NYSUT, (interestingly, the UFT doesn’t appear to be completely on board).

NYSUT, as you’ll recall, did not endorse Gov. Andrew Cuomo in either 2010 or 2014.

In a NYT story this morning about a potential 2018 run for governor by Republican Rep. Chris Gibson, NYSUT President Karen Magee tweaked Cuomo by saying that the congressman, who has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core, would have a “good chance” of landing the union’s backing if the governor’s race were held today.

Of course, 2018 is a long way off, and Cuomo just won re-election to a second four-year term – though not by the landslide for which he had hoped.

The governor recently renamed his campaign committee “Cuomo 2018,” sparking speculation that he might seek a third term. But he also could just be taking out some political insurance, leaving open the option of another run, or trying to remain relevant and avoid lame duck status by keeping people guessing about his next move.

Test Opt-Out Effort Now Includes Citizen Action

Citizen Action, a left-leaning labor group, is supporting an effort to have students opt-out of standardized examinations, dedicating a portion of its website to the growing opt-out movement.

“Standardized tests for students in grades 3 to 8 begin April 14. Because of a flawed law signed by Governor Cuomo as part of the state budget, even more of students’ time in the classroom will be spent teaching to the tests,” Citizen Action says on its website. “That means less time for actual learning, or subjects like science, social studies, art and music.”

The opt-out push comes after state lawmakers approved education reform measures that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sought in the state budget, including a new teacher evaluation criteria that includes a mix of state tests and in-classroom observation. A second test can be made available, though that is subject to collective bargaining.

Citizen Action is also aligned with the Working Families Party, a union-backed party that continues to clash with Cuomo on a variety of issues.

The Department of Education will determine how much weight to give the evaluation test versus in-classroom observations.

The approved budget will make it more challenging for teachers to receive tenure and poor-performing teachers can be fired, regardless of tenure.

Cuomo has also insisted that he’s trying to reduce the number of standardized tests students have to take in the classroom, but added in a radio interview recently it is the best metric for measuring a school’s progress.

Citizen Action provides a multi-step process for “test refusal” including a sample letter to send to a school as well as a frequently asked questions section that insists districts won’t lose funding if students choose to opt out.

The effort, announced in an email today from the organization, comes after New York State United Teachers union President Karen Magee said last month she was encouraging parents to not have their students take part in Common Core-based tests.

At the same time, Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Cathy Nolan introduced a bill last week that is aimed at “providing parents with the right and authority to exempt their
children from taking standardized assessments.”

That’s not the only legislative effort in the works: Measures in both the Senate and Assembly would require the state Department of Education to notify parents of their rights to not have students take standardized examinations.

Flanagan Touts ‘Flexibility’ In Education Measures

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan in a radio interview on Friday pointed to a number of key changes made to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initial school reform proposals.

Chief among them: Having state tests score results count for half of a teacher’s evaluation was rejected by state lawmakers.

Instead, the Department of Education will determine how much weight to give examination results versus in-classroom observation.

“The governor’s initial proposal was very aggressive, but there have been a number of changes,” Flanagan said on The Capitol Pressroom. “The 50 percent is out.”

Flanagan said it’s unlikely education officials and the Board of Regents would recommend scoring bands that weight tests at 50 percent of a teacher’s performance.

“I don’t see that happening. I think the valuable part of the process is there’s some time to do that,” he said. “The intention was, clearly, not to go to 50 percent.”

State lawmakers have sought to frame the education policy measures included in the budget as part of a package of negotiated changes, even as Cuomo himself touts them as among the most significant legislative victories during his time in office as governor.

For Senate Republicans, who campaigned on the issue, a major component of the budget includes ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts by 50 percent this year, and a promise to end the cuts permanently in the next budget year.

Flanagan added the budget includes language that seeks to reduce classroom tests, even as the evaluation criteria could add a second test, based on collective bargaining.

“Right in the statute it talks about ways to do reduce testing, ways to reduce student anxiety,” Flanagan said. “That’s sort of the beginning point and I think we can get there.”

The budget will result in “far less testing at the local level,” he said.

Flanagan was careful, however, when asked about Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s proposal to exempt some high-performing school districts from the evaluation criteria.

But he did seem to suggest that districts doing well in terms of performance should be granted some leeway.

“If someone is doing it really well, give them a break,” he said.

NYSUT Knocks Tisch’s Proposal To Exempt Comments

The New York State United Teachers union on Thursday blasted Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s comments that suggested she would support exempting high-performing school districts from new requirements approved for the teacher evaluation criteria.

“So much of what we talk about is driven by the lowest performing schools, which need to continue to be our very deep focus,” Tisch told Capital New York. “But what if we started to include in this approach of evaluation our respect for the districts who, for decades, have really done great work? And when I say great work, I mean setting up a rubric by which districts can show that they are worthy of a certain amount of autonomy.”

Districts that have high graduation rates or signs of preparing students for college should be given more control over the evaluation process.

NYSUT President Karen Magee went as far as to compare the comments to the sales tax exemption given to boat owners.

“This is yet another example showing why the governor’s toxic education plan is top down and unworkable. Instead of doing everything possible to recruit, support and keep great teachers for students burdened by poverty, he’s boxing them in with test and punish,” Magee said. “Now the chancellor seems to be floating a ‘yacht’ evaluation plan for some communities and non-stop testing pressure for the rest. A NYSUT task force made up of education experts has developed a white paper and model evaluation system that is fair and objective, and aimed at improving teaching and student learning. We stand ready to share our plan with the Regents and work with them to fix this broken system for all students.”

The state budget agreement include the new evaluation criteria and the implementation itself is linked to the approval of a boost in education aid by Nov. 15.

At least one state test would be considered for the evaluation, along with individual classroom observations from a principal and an independent monitor.

Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo left it up to the Department of Education to determine the weight tests will be given over observation.

Assembly Dems to SED: We’re Watching

From the Morning Memo:

After much public angst, and over NYSUT’s objections, the Assembly passed the education budget bill Tuesday night that included a number of reforms pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that will change the way teachers are hired and fired, evaluated and achieve tenure.

The final vote was 92-54, with a number of Assembly Democrats joining their Republican colleagues in voting “no”, despite the fact that to do so meant rejecting an additional $1.4 billion (or $1.6 billion, according to Speaker Carl Heastie’s math) in funding for school districts.

Among the “no” voters was freshman Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who won a seat in last year’s elections that was formerly held by a Republican, (Tony Jordan, who retired to become Washington County DA), and is one of the majority conference’s more marginal members.

During a CapTon interview last night, Woerner said her vote was influenced not by the union, which not only backed her successful Assembly run in 2014, but also her unsuccessful run in 2012, but rather by the parents and teachers who flooded her email inbox, Twitter feed, office phones and Facebook page with comments.

“They’ve all communicated to me their deep concerns about the approach that these reforms are taking, and the pace at which they’re being pushed through, and sort of the lack of thoughtful approach to education policy,” the assemblywoman said. “They really influenced me. That’s really what i was listening to.”

Woerner said she and her fellow Assembly Democrats are taking some small comfort in the fact that much responsibility for setting performance evaluation parameters now lies with the state Education Department, which is not under the Cuomo administration’s control.

In fact, the Assembly Democrats control the selection of the 17-member Board Regents members, who, in turn, run SED, though the department is currently without a commissioner, thanks to the departure at the beginning of this year of John King, who took a job with the Obama administration.

Woerner said she and other Assembly Democrats “anticipated where all this was going” in terms of the governor’s focus on education reform, and pushed hard “to put more people on the board who have experience in K-through-12.”

The result was an unusually contentious election process last month that saw four new members elected to the board – including Beverly Ouderkirk, a former Watertown-area superintendent, whose North Country to Albany region covers Woerner’s 113th Assembly District.

“I’m really looking forward to working with (Ouderkirk) to try to influence this process,” Woerner said.

“There’s a lot more interest in attending Regents meetings and in being a visible presence at those meetings, so that it’s clear that we’re engaged and we’re paying attention and we’re going to try to have some influence on how things go,” the assemblywoman continued.

“So, while that’s not necessarily concrete policy stuff, the level of engagement will be increased.”

It’s fascinating that everyone is now vesting all this trust in SED, when not terribly long ago they were excoriating the department for botching the rollout of the Common Core curriculum.

For what it’s worth, the Cuomo administration is downplaying SED’s policy-setting role when it comes to the APPR, saying the changes passed by the Legislature are very “prescriptive” (as state Operations Director Jim Malatras said on CapTon last night) and don’t allow for much wiggle room.

At this point, most – including Woerner – have adopted a wait-and-see attitude until the SED releases its plans in June.

But the Assembly Democrats clearly haven’t given up hope that they’ll be able to exert some influence on the process, and the teachers unions have made it clear they haven’t given up the fight on their end, either.

Legislative Majorities, Regardless Of Party, Back Education Bill

The education and labor budget bill approved by state lawmakers on Tuesday night broke down along party lines in the Senate and Assembly.

Only, Republicans and Democrats voted for the bill if they were in power in the chamber.

It’s not uncommon for minority conferences — be it Democrats in the Senate or Republicans in the Assembly — to question, criticize and vote against the bills they had little to no hand in developing during negotiations.

Similarly, the burden of power comes the requirement that sometimes — as so many lawmakers said last night — perfect can’t be the enemy of the good.

The measure includes a new teacher evaluation criteria and makes it harder for teachers to obtain tenure and easier for districts to fire teachers, regardless of tenure.

The bill was coupled with a $1.3 billion boost in school aid, but districts must approve the new evaluation criteria before receiving the increase in aid by November.

But the vote breakdown when it came to the education reforms was stark. Democrats overwhelming backed the education bill, or ELFA, in the Assembly, where it passed 92-54. Assemblyman Phil Steck did not support the legislation.

Updated: Democrats Kevin Cahill, Steve Englebright, Phil Goldfeder, Dov Hikind, Angelo Santabarbara, James Skoufis, Fred Thiele and Carrie Woerner also voted against the bill.

Republican Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick voted yes and enthusiastically praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the process.

In the Republican controlled Senate, virtually all GOP lawmakers present voted for the bill while only one Democrat, maverick Sen. Ruben Diaz, back it. Independent Democratic Conference members Tony Avella, David Valesky and David Carlucci voted in favor of the measure as well.

ELFA passed the Senate, 36-26.

2015 Budget Final by Nick Reisman