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Education politics take ‘U-turn’ for Cuomo, teachers

New York teachers have long felt that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been waging a war on their profession.

But an education task force report embraced by Cuomo last week signals his retreat from the tough reforms he pushed since taking office, and a huge victory for the state teachers union.

Observers see the move as an attempt to mend fences with the state’s powerful teachers union, which is critical to Cuomo’s political future. New York State United Teachers holds significant political influence in Albany and this year demonstrated its ability to mobilize not only its 600,000 members, but also parents, who opted their children out of state exams in record numbers.

“The national and statewide politics have taken a U-turn because of pure voter sentiment,” said David C. Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “The astounding 20 percent opt-out rate was a wake-up call that he had misread the electorate. It’s quite obvious that parents who vote in great numbers are aligned with the teachers’ position.”

And both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – NYSUT is affiliated with both – rank among the largest contributors to federal campaigns. Both have already endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in her run for president.

“That’s probably the biggest thing here, and certainly Mrs. Clinton is paying attention to that, as well,” said Maria Voles Ferguson, director of the national Center on Education Policy. “Do not underestimate the power of teachers unions in states like New York.”

Cuomo’s evolving education message, however, carries ramifications for other state leaders who embraced his earlier mantra, chief among them the new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, who built her reputation on school reform.

It also could shift more focus to struggling urban school districts such as Buffalo, where Cuomo still could push for heavy-handed reforms, but alienate fewer voters than he would by forcing statewide changes.

“I don’t think he has any idea about education policy or proclivity about education policy,” Bloomfield said. “It’s all about politics.”

The task force report came as the national education landscape is shifting, and some argue that it undercuts the movement for higher standards and more accountability that has marked the last decade.

The governor released the report on the same day that President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, which rolled back the federal government’s role driving education policy. Although the new law still requires states to administer standardized tests, it does not require them to use those scores to evaluate teachers. It also largely leaves it up to states how to hold schools accountable for their performance.

The new law replaces previous ones that drove many of the controversial reforms happening in schools by incentivizing states to adopt policies supporting charter schools, the Common Core Learning Standards and teacher evaluations.

Other states, most recently Massachusetts, have already abandoned some of these programs. Although the New York task force report recommends delaying the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, some wonder whether the state will ultimately abandon that plan altogether.

Value of local input

“One thing that has happened is the revitalization of this idea of local input, and that parents and educators should feel like they’ve had a say,” Ferguson said. “Arne Duncan’s administration was pretty heavy-handed in a lot of ways,” she said of the departing U.S. education secretary, “and it really shook a lot of people up to say ‘Hey, what’s going on here? Who is making the decisions?’ ”

Meanwhile, the next presidential election is less than a year away, and federal education policy changes with every new face in the White House. The national teachers unions’ early endorsements of Clinton suggest that, if elected, she will support policies favorable to them.

Cuomo, a former state attorney general and federal housing secretary who is said to harbor presidential ambitions himself, has long been thought to be eager to return to the national stage, and his battle with NYSUT would have likely hampered any effort to get there.

“He wanted to endear himself to the union, and this is just one way of doing that,” said Buffalo School Board member Carl P. Paladino, who challenged Cuomo in 2010 and last week indicated he is interested in another run for governor.

NYSUT’s influence in Albany has become increasingly more apparent as it funnels millions of dollars into legislative campaigns.

Along with battling certain state laws, those NYSUT-supported legislators also decide who sits on the Board of Regents, which sets education policy. Last year that resulted in the ouster of local representative Robert M. Bennett, of the Town of Tonawanda, a loyal ally of former State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., currently Duncan’s deputy, and fierce supporter of high standards and accountability.

Next year, several more members of the Board of Regents are up for reappointment, and Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, a longtime reformer, is not seeking another term.

“The fact that both the federal government and this state task force are looking to dramatically reduce the use of high-stakes testing – and possibly eliminate them in teacher evaluations – is a potential sea change,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, or AQE, of New York. “I’d say it’s the beginning.”

Awaiting steps by Elia

Somewhat of a wild card is Elia, who so far has played the middle ground on some of the state’s most controversial issues.

She came to the job with a reputation as a reformer, based largely on her work as a superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla., where she introduced a teacher-evaluation system that rewarded teachers for good performance. She has also been a strong advocate of Common Core and a critic of the opt-out movement in New York.

At the same time, she has tread lightly around controversy since coming to New York, saying early on that she wanted to review Common Core and get feedback from teachers. Shortly after she took office, the state hired a new company to draft new questions for the standardized tests, and Elia promised to include teachers in the development process.

Many observers say it’s not entirely clear which side of New York’s education reform debate Elia will ultimately fall on.

“In Florida, she had to toe the Jeb Bush accountability line,” said Bloomfield, the CUNY professor. “If we ever see the real Elia, it won’t be until after Tisch leaves. It’s not clear once there’s new leadership on the Board of Regents that she won’t show her true colors. We haven’t seen whether she’s a reformer, a leader, a follower or what. Or she may just be a very careful politician who along with Cuomo is reading the political news and thinks this is where she should be on these issues.”

Yet Elia has been very clear about her intention to reform the state’s most struggling school districts – including Buffalo.

She warned School Board members that if they cannot fix their schools, she will. She also recently granted Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash the power to make changes that circumvent the union contract.

Cuomo has also expressed interest in Buffalo, at one point calling for a “death penalty” for schools and districts that fail to meet state standards. Last year, he was involved in conversations about mayoral control of the district, and was the force behind the new receivership law that provides a mechanism for turning individual schools over to outside entities. Some in reform circles say the law fell short by not creating a mechanism for the state to take over entire districts.

There is current speculation that the governor, who has enjoyed significant financial and political support in reform circles, may be looking to push for a charter district during the next legislative session. That would involve turning a portion of district schools over to an outside entity, although it is not clear whether it would be a charter school.

“One of the things the corporate reformers would like to see is the takeover of an entire district,” said Easton of AQE. “They want whole districts.”