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Cuomo administration letter sparks debate on future of New York education

A letter from the Cuomo administration exploring reforms to the state’s education system was met with condemnation from teachers unions Thursday.

The letter, written by a top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, posed a series of questions to Education Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and outgoing Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. about the future of public education in New York State.

“Gov. Cuomo believes in public education – it can open up unlimited opportunity to our students,” wrote Cuomo’s director of state operations, Jim Malatras. “But the system must work. Virtually everyone agrees that the system must be reformed and improved.”

The letter, in particular, questioned the effectiveness of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which Cuomo helped push for in 2012, and asked Tisch and King for suggestions for reforming the process for removing poor-performing teachers.

“How is the current teacher evaluation system credible when only 1 percent of teachers are rated ineffective?” Malatras wrote.

Union leaders bristled.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, in a memo to King and the state Board of Regents, called Malatras’ comments “offensive and insulting” and said the letter “demonstrates an abysmal and chilling lack of knowledge of what will improve teaching and learning.”

“Did he and his ilk ever stop to think that it is how they are misevaluating the schools and students that is the problem and that teachers, especially in urban and poor districts, are indeed performing miracles under extraordinarily difficult circumstances?” Rumore wrote. “Of course not.”

Karen E. Magee, president of the statewide New York State United Teachers, said Malatras’ letter included “clueless, incendiary questions that do the bidding of New York City hedge-fund billionaires.”

In the letter, Malatras said the governor planned to pursue “an aggressive legislative package to improve public education” during the upcoming budget process and would seek to strengthen the profession of teaching.

Malatras pointed to results of recent state tests that show that just about a third of third- through eighth-graders were proficient in reading, writing and math despite the state’s high per-student spending. “We all can agree that this is simply unacceptable,” Malatras said.

State lawmakers earlier this year negotiated a “safety net” for teachers that would shield them from getting fired during a two-year period because of poor evaluations based on student performance on state tests aligned to new Common Core standards. But Cuomo late last week had yet to sign the bill. Instead, he now appears to be considering a broader package of changes for the teacher evaluation system, as well as other education reforms to the teacher tenure system.