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State lawmakers pass $142 billion spending plan

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers finalized deals on education and ethics and passed the budget early Wednesday.

Legislators began passing the final budget bills in the late afternoon, with only a few hours left until the deadline. The Senate passed the spending plan before the midnight deadline, while the Assembly finished voting just before 3 a.m. Wednesday.

The final sticking points of the spending plan, resolved Tuesday, include a new teacher evaluation plan and changes to teacher tenure.

According to the governor’s office, the new teacher performance reviews will be based on two components. One; test scores, from grades 3 to 8 math and English standardized tests and existing Regents exams. And two; classroom observations by a school administrator or independent observer.

If a teacher is rated ineffective on either of those two components, they cannot be ranked effective overall , and can only be ranked what’s known as  "developing."

The provision radically changes the teacher tenure system. If a teacher is rated ineffective for three years in a row, whether they have tenure or not, then a school district could begin proceedings to have them removed.

The plan contains many key elements that Cuomo originally sought. Cuomo has said that he finds it “incredible” that the present teacher evaluation system results in over 95 percent of teachers rated as effective or highly effective.

The teachers union called it a “sham” and “unworkable."

“New York has witnessed a vengeful governor refusing to engage in honest dialogue about the quality of our public schools,” said NYSUT President Karen Magee.

Teachers  and their allies begged the Senate and Assembly to “hit the pause button” and delay passage of the bills.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, whose Democratic conference is most closely allied with the teacher’s union, says that’s not happening.

“We’re going to pass the bills,” Heastie said.

All school districts will need to get their new teacher performance plans okayed by the state Education Department by late fall. If the plans are rejected, then school districts would not continue to get increases in  school aid, which were also approved in the budget.   

Heastie says that’s an improvement over the governor’s initial plan, which directly linked school aid increases to the new plans, and would have held up the additional school aid until the teacher reviews were completed.

“This one is different, where the money will go out the door,” said Heastie, who says schools will need to finish the new teacher performance systems by November.

But Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins characterized the education measures, which were negotiated by Republicans who lead the Senate, as holding school aid “hostage” to the teacher evaluation changes.

Heastie says the Board of Regents, which is essentially appointed by the Assembly Democrats, will have a hand in guiding the changes.

“They are the education experts,” Heastie said. “As the  legislature, we’re asking the education experts to do their responsibility.”

But Cuomo administration officials have a different interpretation. They say the powers of the state Education Department will be strictly limited to approving teacher evaluation plans from school districts that comply with the new rules. 

The education department will also have the powers to create a second test for individual school districts,  if teachers at the school don’t want to use the existing standardized tests as a measure of their performance. The provision puts the onus on teachers to request the new tests.

The education changes also provide a means for state takeover of what Cuomo calls “failing schools” and many lawmakers refer to as “struggling schools.” According to the governor’s office, schools have to show  improvement within one year, or the state Education Department can take steps to put the schools into receivership. Unions contracts could not be broken, but new contracts would have to take the changed circumstances into account.

New York State United Teachers has begun organizing a plan to encourage parents to boycott the standardized tests that would be half of the basis for the new teacher evaluations. If enough children don’t participate, the teacher performance plans might be invalid and have to be scrapped.

Legislators also worked out details of an ethics reform bill. It would deny pensions for lawmakers convicted of serious crimes. The provision requires a constitutional amendment.  It would require proof that legislators are actually in Albany before they can collect their daily expense payments.

And, there would be some more disclosure of the law clients from Senators and Assemblymembers who work for private law firms.

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.