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How the power of NYSUT upended education reform movement in New York

When Betty Rosa was named the new chancellor of the state Board of Regents last week, she signaled what could be the end of the reform era in New York’s education system.

“We as a board must move away from what was so-called, as people like to label it, reform,” Rosa said before her colleagues voted 15-0, with two abstentions, to appoint her.

New York State United Teachers was among the first to offer congratulations.

The union has plenty of reason to celebrate Rosa’s appointment, which many believe will prompt a shift away from tough standards, high-stakes tests and strict accountability for schools and teachers.

It signals a key victory for the teachers union in the battle over the direction of education in New York, a battle waged with millions of dollars in campaign spending and brute political tactics from both sides over much of the past decade.

“Now is not the time to be complacent,” NYSUT President Karen Magee declared early last year. “We will be escalating our actions as the legislative season progresses.”

The union made good on that promise, mobilizing an aggressive counterforce that included:

• Launching a $1 million public relations campaign attacking Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, which many credit for driving down the governor’s approval ratings and pressuring him to call for a delay in using state tests to evaluate teachers.

• Spending millions of dollars on legislative races – including gruesome mailers depicting a domestic violence victim that helped elect Buffalo Sen. Marc Panepinto – to influence who votes on education law and decides who sits on the Board of Regents.

• Driving the replacement of reform-friendly members of the Board of Regents – including former Chancellor Merryl Tisch and former local representative Robert M. Bennett – and shifting the makeup of the group to one that predominantly favors NYSUT’s agenda.

• Fueling a parent-generated opt-out movement that led to 20 percent of New York students sitting out of standardized tests last year, the highest number in the country.

Some who supported the reform agenda, including Cuomo and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, insist they are not backing down from the high standards and tough accountability that started to reshape the educational landscape in New York.

But given the changes on the Board of Regents, and looming state and federal elections where the union will exercise significant influence, that appears unlikely.

“They, at the moment, seem to have run out of gas,” David C. Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said of those pushing the reform agenda. “What happened was that agenda finally got to its sharpest point pushing a dramatic accountability agenda, at which time the pendulum started to swing back.”

Race to reform

Few people talked about school reform in New York before Tisch became chancellor in 2009 and sought to bring the movement already taking hold in New York City to scale at the state level.

State leaders historically had been resistant to change what many considered a premier education system, and that was especially true with Common Core, high-stakes tests, tough accountability and charter schools.

Tisch wasted no time articulating her agenda when she stepped into the role leading the state school system.

“Going forward, standards, accountability and innovation will be the watchwords of this board and the state Education Department,” she said upon her appointment. “As chancellor, I will insist that we continue to raise standards for all of our children and hold every school district accountable for their results, while providing the support necessary to get that done.”

Tisch began laying the groundwork immediately. She recruited two reform-oriented educators to take the top spots at the state Education Department, including John B. King, her former doctoral classmate who was seen as a rising leader in reform circles.

The new leadership took over just as the federal government rejected the state’s first Race to the Top application, denying New York state hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding because lawmakers failed to make statutory changes allowing for new standards, teacher evaluations and charter schools. New York finished second last of 16 finalists in the contest.

The chancellor and her allies turned to political pressure, launching a multimillion-dollar campaign blaming the teachers union and lawmakers for costing the state’s students a chance to get $700 million, money that could go a long way toward helping districts survive a recession and prevent teacher layoffs.

The strategy worked. Ultimately, the campaign resulted in the state Legislature signing off on a series of reforms that in 2010 netted the state $700 million in federal dollars and would begin to reshape New York’s education landscape.

Ready for battle

Significant changes occurred all at once, and few people knew – or expected – how they would unfold in the classroom.

The state asked districts to begin a gradual roll-out of the new standards, introducing them at new grade levels each year. State education leaders warned that the new tests tied to the standards would be much more difficult than those in the past, and cautioned local educators to get ready.

Some districts heeded the warning. Many did not, instead saying the state failed to offer enough direction, support and materials for the transition.

Meanwhile, state and union leaders grappled with what a new teacher evaluation system would look like, and how standardized tests might affect an educator’s performance.

Anxiety and uncertainty bubbled under the surface for years, finally boiling over when the first round of Common Core test results came out in 2013. As expected, districts’ performance plummeted an average of 25 percentage points in reading and 34 points in math.

The results were a rude awakening to the difficulty of the new standards and how the accompanying tests could affect teachers.

State leaders showed no signs of backing off.

“I want to be very clear, we are committed to the work on the Common Core,” King, then commissioner, told a crowd at the New York State School Boards Association annual meeting that year. “We are committed to the agreement we made collectively as a state. Our commitment to these principles shall not waver.”

New union leaders

Many teachers blamed longtime NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi for not fighting back in what they considered a war on their profession. And he was coming up for re-election.

“We didn’t feel like he was doing the kind of fighting we wanted to do,” Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said in an interview last year. “It didn’t seem like he was willing to go into battle.”

Magee, meanwhile, had a reputation as a no-nonsense labor leader who had more recently worked in the classroom.

With the support of the state’s largest local unions, Magee put together a “Revive NYSUT” ticket and threw herself into what became a divisive race that pitted her against the eight-year incumbent.

Ultimately, about 3,000 delegates representing 1,200 local unions elected Magee as the union’s third president in April 2014.

She promised to make the union the most influential labor organization in the state. With just months until legislative elections, she set to work immediately.

Turning the tables

The day after the NYSUT election, Magee met with other top union leaders to strategize a public relations campaign, largely taking aim at the governor.

They also looked to the coming legislative races, which offered an opportunity to influence not only who votes on state law, but also who decides who sits on the state Board of Regents. Seven of 17 Regents’ terms were up in 2015, presenting an opportunity to force a philosophical shift on the policymaking body.

Along with its 600,000 members, NYSUT had access to another key resource – parents. The teachers union and parents led a movement to opt students out of standardized tests.

The union encouraged parents to direct their anger to local state representatives, flooding them with emails, phone calls and letters to show their discontent at the polls.

Meanwhile, NYSUT reached deep into its campaign coffers and funneled millions of dollars into key legislative races and lobbying efforts in Albany.

A Buffalo News analysis identified $1.9 million in direct candidate contributions from donors who used NYSUT’s mailing address in Troy.

More significantly, thanks to a law allowing independent committees to pay for expenses not technically approved by individual candidates, the union spent $4.7 million on political ads, mailers and phone calls, much of it targeting Senate races.

Additionally, education lobbying by the union and reform groups fueled record spending in 2014.

NYSUT’s $3.2 million in lobbying spending was second only to Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school group that spent $9.6 million. Those expenditures made education-related lobbying on issues such as charter schools and teacher evaluations the most expensive that election season.

60th District races

Few places were the union’s efforts more evident than in Western New York, where it spent a quarter of its dollars aimed at Senate campaigns in the 60th District race to elect Democrat Panepinto, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Panepinto recently announced he will not seek re-election amid allegations of sexual harassment of staffers in his office.

That Senate race played out in a region with one of the highest opt-out rates in the state and where the sitting Regent, Bennett, would soon be up for reappointment.

NYSUT spent $307,000 in the primary alone to knock incumbent Sen. Mark Grisanti off the Republican ballot line and replace him with a candidate who would be easier to defeat. It spent another $826,000 in the general election, bringing its support of the Democratic candidate to $1.13 million – one of the most expensive races in Western New York history.

The effort demonstrated the extent to which the union would go to influence the election, both in dollars and message. The union went against local Democratic Party leaders’ original choice by backing Panepinto and then sent a gruesome ad that pictured a woman with a black eye, bloodied lip and smudged mascara declaring Grisanti would not “protect her from her abuser.” The graphic image was apparently intended to draw attention to the Women’s Equality Act, which Grisanti opposed because of a provision allowing late-term abortions.

The union was criticized for such tactics, but Panepinto captured 34 percent of the vote in the four-way race, winning the seat.

Although Panepinto’s victory represented the union’s sole victory electing a Democrat to the Senate, it carried other significance in a part of the state that had become a key battleground in their war against the reform movement.

Changing of the guard

In the days leading up to the March 2015 vote for the Regents seat representing Western New York, members of the local legislative delegation – who would drive the appointment – remained divided.

It was an unusual situation, given that appointments to the board historically came from a relatively sleepy process that allowed incumbents to maintain their seat as long as they wanted.

This time was different.

Seven seats were up, including the one representing Western New York.

Not only was long-standing member Bennett supportive of reform, he was seen as a close friend and ally of Tisch.

The vote forced lawmakers to reconcile their own beliefs with mounting public pressure and lobbying from constituents at all levels, from local parent groups and principals to prominent business leaders and the powerful state teachers union.

Forces on both sides attempted to use power and political clout to sway the delegates. Even Carl Paladino, the Buffalo School Board member and developer, made calls to local representatives trying to drum up support for Bennett, who had just one local legislator publicly backing him. The rest of the delegation was split between former Buffalo School Board members Catherine Collins and John Licata.

It became increasingly clear Bennett didn’t have the support. As the decision seemed headed for a messy fight on the floor of the Legislature, he withdrew from consideration.

The Legislature tapped Collins for the job, along with three other new Regents, tipping the balance of the board to one that was more NYSUT-friendly.

The appointments sent a clear message – NYSUT was winning the battle in Albany.

The union’s next target was obvious.

Tisch, the force behind many of the state’s reforms, would be up for reappointment in 2016.

She didn’t leave the decision in the Legislature’s hands. Months before legislators would have to decide, Tisch announced she would not seek another term. Two other members, including one with another year on his term, followed suit.

“Some people say it was too much at once. Some even say implemented poorly,” Tisch said at the Regents meeting where she announced her decision. “I say we disrupted stagnation, complacency and tried to imbue the system with urgency. I say we took critical steps to reignite and reinvigorate.”

Last week, she presided over her last meeting.

End of an era?

Just weeks after a state task force deemed state standardized tests unreliable, union chief Magee and education commissioner Elia sat a few feet apart, politely making small talk about living in Albany.

The two women share common ground. They are both longtime educators who spent much of their careers in the classroom and became the first women to rise to power in their respective organizations.

Ideologically speaking, however, they couldn’t be more different.

As they prepared for a panel discussion about the state of accountability in New York schools, it was unclear whether they could find some middle ground.

NYSUT has regained significant influence in a Legislature that previously opened the door for school reform in New York. The union also has strong allies on the Board of Regents and in the court of public opinion, all of which are increasingly questioning the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations.

Meanwhile, the federal pressure that once forced states to embrace such reforms disappeared at the end of last year when Congress signed off on a new law diminishing its role in setting education policy and returning it to states.

In this new climate, many believe Rosa’s appointment marks the end of the school reform era in New York, leaving lingering questions about what that means for Elia and others who continue to support high standards and accountability.

Upon Rosa’s appointment, Elia continued to defend the use of standardized tests and their use in making decisions for schools and students.

“I do believe that the tests that we have in place are better, and I do believe that there is a benefit for those assessments to be given to our students so we have a plan as we move forward,” she said.

Rosa, who was one of three Regents to vote against the teacher evaluation system and recently indicated she would opt her own children out of state tests, then clarified the commissioner’s statement.

“I think that what the commissioner is saying is she’s going around trying to help parents understand that changes have been made,” Rosa said. “Are they where the parents want these changes to be? No. Are we working to make sure that we get to a better place? Absolutely.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com