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Cuomo's education proposals are a big shift

Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives at Wednesday's State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State speech was far less combative than in the past when it comes to education. But, education groups say while they are pleased that Cuomo has reversed his previous unpopular positions, they say his school aid funding proposal still falls short.

The governor, who has attacked components of the public school system as an “education bureaucracy” that must be broken, instead stuck to the positive in this year’s State of the State address.

“We will not rest until our K-12 system is the best in the nation,” Cuomo said.

Last year, the governor insisted on an unpopular teacher evaluation plan that relied more heavily on standardized tests associated with the Common Core. Partly as a result, 1/5 of students stayed home and boycotted the tests that would be used to judge the teachers. The governor acknowledged the strength of the opt out  movement in his speech.

“We saw that parents were losing faith in the system,” Cuomo said.

And, he announced that he is retreating from the emphasis on the controversial tests and will instead follow the rules of a self appointed commission that recommends postponing the new teacher reviews for four years.

Cuomo had tried to be the leader on school issues instead of the more independent State Education Department (SED), which he does not control. Now, he is giving that role back to SED and blaming them for the Common Core’s problems, saying they made mistakes.

Billy Easton, with the pro-school funding group Alliance for Quality Education, which has often been at odds with Cuomo in the past, welcomed the change. He said what became a feud between Cuomo and the teachers and their allies proved politically unpopular.

“We saw a lot of people turn sour on the governor on education,” Easton said. “I think he’s doing it to try to shore up his poll numbers, but I’m still happy he’s doing it.”

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, said Cuomo fought with the state’s influential teachers unions, and lost.

“He took on the union,” Kremer said. “And that did not go well.”

Kremer said Cuomo does not want to wear the continuing fallout from the test boycott movement, which some believe will be as strong in 2016 or grow even larger.

The president of the state’s teachers union, Karen Magee of New York State United Teachers, is not crowing over the union’s victory. But, she praises the governor for changing course and said she is glad that education policy is back where it belongs -- in the hands of the State’s Education Department and Board of Regents.

“There’s been advocacy on the part of parents, communities, teachers,” Magee said. “And I think, to his credit, the governor has heard that.”

But nearly everyone involved in education, including teachers, school financial experts and the Board of Regents, said the governor’s proposal to spend $1 billion more on schools falls far short. Kremer, with the School Boards Association, said double that amount is needed just to keep the status quo.

“We very clearly did the math and suggested $1.7 billion was needed just to maintain current programs and services,” Kremer said.

He said that amount does not even include resources need to comply with the Common Core learning standards, expand pre-K and step up school safety.

But most expect the legislature to add more money for schools, before the budget is done.

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.