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Education issues front and center in 2015

Governor Andrew Cuomo
A charter school rally (which Gov. Cuomo attended) at the state Capitol held in March 2014.

Education will be a big issue in 2015. Lines are already drawn between public school teachers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the charter school movement.

Before the New Year even began, the state’s largest teachers union was already making its displeasure with Cuomo known, by protesting outside the governor’s mansion.

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Karen Magee says teachers are angry over what they see as the governor's increasingly negative view of their union and the public education system in general.  

“The governor doesn’t understand education and what needs to be done to ensure that New York schools get even better than they already are,” Magee said.

Cuomo, just days before he was reelected to a second term, essentially threw down the gauntlet, saying he intends to take on the status quo of New York’s school system in his second term.

“When you think about it it’s probably the single largest public monopoly in the United States of American,” Cuomo said on October 27, 2014.

The governor, in the final days of 2014, vetoed a bill that would have given teachers a two year break from the effects of the controversial Common Core and additional testing associated with the new learning standards. Ironically, Cuomo had initially backed the bill in the legislature.

The governor is now calling for a new teacher evaluation system. He says he finds it incredible that more than 95 percent of teachers were rated as performing properly, while two thirds of New York’s school children in grades 3 through 8 have been deemed inadequate in math and reading standards.

“It’s not real,” Cuomo said. “You have an evaluation system in name [only].”

Cuomo is also a supporter of charter schools, which are often at odds with traditional public schools. He spoke at a rally for charter schools during the last legislative session, saying parents and students “deserve a choice,” and that he’d ensure government support to build more charter schools. Cuomo has not yet weighed in on whether the current cap on the number of charter schools in the state should be lifted.

Some teachers at charter schools, including an Albany charter school instructor Jamal Hood, also rallied at the governor’s mansion, asking for more money and authorization for more schools.

“There should be more,” Hood said. “Any way to make students successful in the classroom is a great thing.”

Another issue brewing is how much money schools should receive in the state budget. The State Board of Regents, which is appointed by the legislature to be in charge of education, recommends  an additional $2 billion.

Cuomo has often said that spending more money is not the answer. He dismissed the Regents’ recommendation.

“That’s Albany politically correct, I want $17 billion for everything,” Cuomo said in mid-December.

A property tax cap, which limits growth of school spending by 2 percent a year, will also expire in 2015. Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), says the cap, enacted in 2011, has squeezed underfunded schools even further, but he predicts that it’s likely to be renewed.  

“A property tax cap polls very well,” Kremer said.

An additional tax program that takes effect this year could result in a freeze on school tax increases, if districts agree to take steps to consolidate services or even merge school districts. But Kremer says it’s been difficult to get voters to agree to shrink the number of schools.

The state legislature traditionally adds money for schools to the governor’s budget, so it’s likely that schools will see an increase in funding by the time the state budget is decided in late March.

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.