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Editorial: Cuomo should hold fast for statewide teacher evaluations

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has changed his mind a lot over the years – on the Moreland Commission, on the minimum wage and, recently, on the legalization of marijuana. To be sure, it’s important for public officials to be open to new information and changing public attitudes, but there is at least one place where the governor should hold fast, and that is on teacher evaluations. Once a firm backer of a state system of evaluations, he should veto the bill that the Legislature’s Democrats just rammed through.

The fundamental problem is that the Legislature’s Democrats, long partnered with the state’s teachers unions, are more fearful of how that powerful interest group can hurt them than they are interested in how the state can ensure that its students are well educated and that taxpayers get quality for the nation-leading costs they pay. They aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

Yet, the Legislature, now fully in Democratic control, quickly moved to decouple teacher evaluations from state tests. The measure it approved on Wednesday would, instead, leave the critical matter of assessing teachers to local districts and their unions, the latter of whom would prefer not to be evaluated at all.

It's not too surprising that teachers don’t want their work evaluated. Who does? It’s much easier when no one is looking over your shoulder.

But New York taxpayers dig very deep to fund education here; they have a compelling interest to ensure that good teachers succeed, that weak teachers improve and that those who can’t do the job are respectfully helped into other lines of work.

That was the initial promise of teacher evaluations that necessarily included some kind of consistent, statewide student testing. How else can education leaders and taxpayers make comparisons among teachers and school districts? Some baseline is necessary.

The promise was that the tests would be one of a set of factors used in evaluations and, importantly, that the goal of the tests was constructive and not punitive. Teachers who needed help to improve would get it.

Eventually, those that couldn’t meet some reasonable standard would be dismissed, but it wouldn’t be quick and, in the end, that’s no different from other vocations, which are generally less crucial to society than teaching.

But the unions and their supporters insist that no such system can work – that the tests are not only inaccurate, but fatally flawed no matter how much they are refined, adjusted and improved. That’s false on its face and it documents the raw fact that the unions and their toads in the Legislature simply don’t want teachers to be graded.

The legislation now headed to Cuomo’s desk says that state tests can be used, but are no longer required. That’s a dodge. It also requires individual school districts to craft evaluations, which will make it all but impossible for education officials to compare the effectiveness of teachers in one district to those in another. That makes it harder to help weak teachers – and weak districts – to improve.

Cuomo came to office eight years ago on a promise to reform the education bureaucracy, correctly observing that while education spending consumes a large portion of the state budget, there were no reliable metrics to evaluate its performance. It was crazy then and it’s crazy now.

Now, word is that Cuomo is prepared to cave in to the teachers unions and to sign this legislation. He shouldn’t. This is a governor who knows how to hang tough, and this is a time to do it.

Instead, he needs to veto the bill and insist that the Legislature devise a fair, statewide system to evaluate teachers, to help those who need to improve and, most of all, to look out for the interests of students and the taxpayers who want to see them – and their teachers – succeed.

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