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Governor’s ‘tough’ reform package for education includes more aid as incentive

New York schools would see a wave of reforms that touch on everything from a tougher teacher-evaluation system to more charter schools to free state tuition for educators who commit to teaching in New York State, under a broad package of education proposals unveiled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday.

The proposals set up what’s likely to be a highly contentious legislative battle in Albany this spring over education. But the governor dangled a powerful carrot for state lawmakers to push through his controversial reforms: a dramatically bigger increase in school funding if they take on his education agenda.

“I know these reforms are tough,” Cuomo told state lawmakers gathered in Albany to hear his annual State of the State and budget address, “but the purpose of the education system and why we do this and why taxpayers give us money to fund education is so that we can teach and nurture our children. This was never about protecting and growing a bureaucracy.”

Key components of Cuomo’s wish list for education include:

• Reducing the power of unions and local school districts in determining how teachers and principals are evaluated and raising the bar for new teachers to receive tenure.

• Handing out $20,000 bonuses for teachers who are rated “highly effective” under a tougher new evaluation system and making it easier to remove those who aren’t performing well.

• Creating higher standards for new teachers and paying tuition for top candidates at State University of New York teacher education programs who commit to teaching in New York for five years.

• Allowing more charter schools across the state and handing over failing public schools to turnaround experts.

• Expanding prekindergarten to 3-year-olds and creating a new tax credit for donations to education groups, including scholarship programs for public and private schools.

As expected, education played heavily into Cuomo’s budget address Wednesday. An early advocate for the existing teacher-evaluation system, Cuomo criticized the results of its first few years as “baloney” and said they have been muddied by “local score inflation.”

In direct opposition to calls from parents and teachers to reduce the use of state tests in those evaluations, Cuomo called for using more state measures to evaluate teachers and principals.

“Who are we kidding, my friends?” Cuomo said. “The problem is clear, and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.”

Under Cuomo’s proposal for teacher evaluations, 50 percent of a teacher’s score would be based on state standards. The remaining 50 percent would be based on classroom observations.

The proposal, in effect, would reduce the influence of local unions in determining how their teachers are evaluated. It would also likely increase the use of state tests in scoring the effectiveness of teachers.

That would be a disappointment to parents and teachers who don’t believe that serious consequences should be tied to state standardized tests.

“It changes the entire classroom environment when teachers are evaluated on these tests because it shifts the focus from being student-centered to being test-centered,” said Eric Mihelbergel, of the City of Tonawanda, a parent who has been an outspoken critic of state tests and a founder of a statewide coalition known as New York State Alliance for Public Education.

Currently, the details of teacher evaluations are largely negotiated between school districts and local teachers unions: Sixty percent is based on locally negotiated classroom observations and other measures of teacher success; 20 percent is based on student performance measures chosen by local school districts and unions; and the other 20 percent is based on student performance on state exams.

Cuomo also put forth a proposal to make it tougher for new teachers to obtain tenure. The governor said he wants schools to be able to grant the employment protection only to teachers who receive five consecutive evaluation ratings of “effective” or “highly effective.” He also proposed further streamlining the process for removing teachers for misconduct.

Most teachers today receive tenure after three years of teaching, although school districts can extend the probationary period beyond that before granting teachers and administrators tenure.

Many of Cuomo’s education proposals are likely to set up a heated battle in Albany this spring with lawmakers aligned with New York State United Teachers, the powerful statewide teachers union. “The truth is, there’s no epidemic of failing schools or bad teachers,” NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said in response to Cuomo’s remarks. “There is an epidemic of poverty and underfunding that Albany has failed to adequately address for decades.”

In recent weeks, Magee and other union leaders have hit Cuomo hard for failing to live up to past state funding promises for schools.

But Cuomo, in his address, argued that money was not the root cause of schools that are failing children.

“We’ve been putting more money into the system every year for decades, and it hasn’t changed,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo acknowledged the uphill battle he faces in passing much of his education reform efforts but gave lawmakers an incentive to adopting his agenda. If they pass his reform proposals for teacher evaluations, teacher tenure, charter schools and other controversial measures, he said, he would increase state funding for schools by 4.8 percent or $1.1 billion. If not, he would offer 1.7 percent or $377 million. “This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years, for so many reasons,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s proposal on pre-K drew a mixed reaction. Buffalo Public Schools interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie championed the proposal to expand pre-K to 3-year-olds. “In many districts, this is essential,” Ogilvie said, adding that providing young children with well-designed and professionally delivered programs gives a greater the opportunity to succeed later in life.

But others said they were disappointed that Cuomo did not provide more funding for schools that offer full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds.

News Staff Reporters Sandra Tan and Barbara O’Brien contributed to this report. email: djgee@buffnews.com