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Cuomo and teachers: it's war


Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined a set of education reforms in his State of the State address last week that should remove any doubt that he sees teachers and their unions as the root cause of the state's education problems. And that he's ready to go to war to fix them.

"Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years," Cuomo said.

Branding the current teacher evaluations "bologna," he said that he wants new evaluations that are based 50 percent on standardized tests and 50 percent on independent observations. Teachers who receive "ineffective" scores for two years in a row could be fired, he said.

Critics say that the current system makes it nearly impossible to fire poorly performing teachers in a reasonable amount of time.

"Who are we kidding?" Cuomo said. "We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations."

Cuomo said that he wants to lengthen the probationary period before teachers can receive tenure from three years to five years. And he wants to reward highly effective teachers with a $20,000 annual bonus.

Cuomo also wants to give mayors in the cities with the state's largest school districts more control over their schools, citing what he said is New York City's success under mayoral control.

And he said that the state needs to have a faster response mechanism for failing schools.

Cuomo is not the first person to call for raising standards for teachers. And many public school critics, including some administrators, support making it easier to fire incompetent teachers.

But some education officials say that making the evaluation system more test-driven and changing the eligibility requirements for tenure will not have a significant impact on student performance.

And Cuomo will have difficulty selling the public on an evaluation system based so heavily on testing data when the public is already concerned about the overuse of testing, says Willa Powell, a member of the Rochester school board and the representative of the "big five" district school boards on the New York School Boards Association.

"The governor is basically a racehorse with blinders on," Powell says. "He refuses to see what doesn't fit his agenda."

After Cuomo's speech, New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said that the governor's reforms are an attack on union members' collective bargaining rights. Cuomo wants to add 100 charter schools, which typically do not have unions, to the state's public school system.

But most studies show that on average, charters' test scores are not much better than the scores at traditional public schools. And sufficient data on their graduation rates isn't available yet.

Critics ask how the governor, who says that he's concerned about wasting tax dollars on public school bureaucracy, knows that he's not just creating another bureaucracy.

Cuomo said that he would provide an additional $1 billion to the state's $23 billion education budget if all of his reforms are enacted — a tactic used by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the federal Race to the Top program; play ball or you don't get the money.

Holding education funding hostage to his own version of reforms amounts to an attack on schools and teachers, says Tom Gillett, regional staff director for New York State United Teachers — one of the state's teachers unions.

"That is not the legislative process that most people think we have in New York," Gillett says.

But perhaps most concerning, critics say, is that Cuomo's reforms don't begin to address the inequity of the state's highly segregated public schools. A New York Times editorial recently described insufficient funding for high-needs schools as the state's most serious and systemic education problem.

"The truth is we have two systems: one for the rich and one for the poor," Cuomo said in last week's speech.