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State education commissioner open to granting schools waivers on teacher evaluations

Thomas Favre-Bulle
via Flickr

The New York state’s education commissioner says she’s open to granting waivers to delay new teacher evaluation for an additional year, saying the new systems should not be hastily pushed through because of an arbitrary date.

The latest version of teacher and principal evaluations were pushed through in this year’s state budget by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It requires that the reviews be based more heavily on controversial standardized tests. The new plans are due this fall.

The New York State Board of Regents voted to permit schools who find the deadline too tight to apply for a waiver for a one year delay. And now the state’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, who’s been on the job since early July, says she’s open to granting the waivers if meeting the deadline puts more pressure on already overtaxed school districts.      

“I don’t think we should put that much more stress on them,” Elia said. “Let them get the waiver and then have the time that they need to really do something that’s good.”

She says the evaluations can be a positive experience, if they result in more support for teachers who need to improve some of their skills .

“The reality is the teachers are going to be the ones that make it work in a classroom every day for the kids across the state,” said Elia. “So it’s important for us to make sure that this is done appropriately and not pushed through just because of a date.”

Carl Korn, a spokesman for the teachers union , New York State United Teachers, says the new performance review rules are complex and convoluted and it’s taking time to wade through what he calls the minutia of the law.

“It’s more important to get it right or as close to getting it right as possible,” Korn said. “Than to try to meet an artificial deadline that was never realistic in the first place.”

Korn says the education department has not yet approved some of the assessments needed for local school districts  who might decide on alternative exams to evaluate their teachers.  He says school districts  and their  teachers unions are “trying to make the best of a bad situation."

The New York State School Boards Association, however, is not as enthusiastic about the possibly of numerous schools applying for and receiving waivers. The group’s Tim Kremer says if districts trying to bargain with their unions  know they could put off tough decisions for another year, many will.

“You’re pulling the rug out from any good faith negotiations that might be taking place right now,” Kremer said.

But he says he expects significant numbers of school districts to apply for the waivers.  

And Kremer points out that although the Regents developed the waiver option, they were unable to rescind the provision that says if schools don’t meet the November 15 deadline, they have to give back some state aid awarded to them in the budget back in the spring.

“That’s money that they have budgeted, they have planned for its use,” Kremer said “I would be very cautious about playing that game and being very fast and loose with the rules.”

Cuomo has said he hopes the waivers will be the exception and not the rule. Elia does not work for the governor directly but is chosen by the Regents, who are picked by the legislature. She says she does not think her views on the waivers, though are at odds with Cuomo.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.