When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 budget address, he sounded like a changed man. Less that 4% of his speech was dedicated to P-12 education compared to over 20% of his 2015 budget address where he detailed a brutal agenda to make student test scores 50% of teachers’ evaluations and calling the existing teacher evaluation system, which he had previously championed, “baloney” solely because it failed to find more teachers incompetent. Governor Cuomo charged hard at this agenda, ramming it through the budget process, but then he took a beating in public opinion polling and set off the largest opt out movement in the nation. After months of various agencies and entities trying to walk back the harshest measures of the 2015 budget bill, Governor Cuomo’s 2016 speech in Albany presented a far less ambitious P-12 education agenda, highlighting only the light concessions he had made on standards and testing and promising to find enough money finally to stop stealing school aid from districts via the hated gap elimination adjustment. Observers could have been forgiven for thinking this signaled a change in Governor Cuomo’s approach to education and that he might be willing to finally recognize that growth and support are better tools than test and punish.
Last week, the state Division of the Budget, which reports directly to the Governor, announced that 70 schools which had improved sufficiently to be removed from receivership would no longer be eligible for state improvement funds. The argument is based upon the fact that $75 million in state school improvement funding is only available to schools on the receivership list even though New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman argued that removing the money just as the schools have made progress “makes no sense.”
The Governor’s Division of the Budget could have responded in any number of ways. They could have expressed pride in the success of schools that were removed from the list and pledged to find other ways to support their growth and development. They could have lamented the limitations of the state receivership law that potentially leaves schools in the untenable position of having to function under constant threat of being closed even when they meet their improvement targets or of losing critically needed funds. They could have called for an immediate legislative fix allowing the Division of the Budget to keep school improvement funds allocated while schools actually improve. After all, isn’t the purpose of examining school performance and requiring clear improvement targets about improving the schools?
Not a chance in Hell.
Spokesman for the budget division, Morris Peters fired back, “To suggest that these schools should remain eligible for the funding even though they were removed from the program is contrary to the law and, most importantly, a blatant disservice to the children who have been condemned to these failing schools and received sub-quality education for decades.” Mr. Peters went on to claim that NYSED had “unilaterally” removed the schools from the list, so they could not get the money. Not a word about the improvement the schools had made. Not a word of regret that schools which had made actual progress would lose funds. Just a snarl worthy of the nastiest we have ever seen coming out of education “reform” in New York stapled to a gripe about NYSED actually exercising its legitimate authority.
It is helpful to revisit education authority in New York. Contrary to Mr. Peters’ petulant gripe, the executive branch of New York has almost no direct education authority whatsoever. Most of that authority resides with the New York State Education Department which is run by the Commissioner of Education appointed by the state Board of Regents. The Regents, through the Commissioner, oversee the complex and sprawling University of the State of New York which includes over 7000 public and private schools, 248 public and private colleges and universities, 7000 libraries, 750 museums, the State Archives, 48 licensed professions employing over 750,000 practitioners, and 240,000 certified public school teachers, administrators, and counselors. The Regents themselves are selected by the Legislature to represent different judicial districts and at large seats, and they elect their own Chancellor. The Executive Branch, meaning the Governor’s office, has no legal authority over the USNY and its board of Regents whatsoever.
This is not to say that the Governor is without any authority or influence. The budget is a powerful tool with which to shape agendas, and Mr. Cuomo has wielded it like Mjolnir to smash everything in sight. The Governor can also pressure legislators to pass favored policies, and he can cultivate a working relationship with the Regents. Certainly, Governor Cuomo and former Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch enjoyed a chummy enough partnership, exchanging letters towards the end of calendar year 2014 that became a rough outline of Mr. Cuomo’s 2015 education agenda. However, the Board of Regents has a new Chancellor, Betty Rosa, a former New York City teacher and administrator, who told reporters that if she were a parent and not on the Board of Regents, she “would opt out at this time.” Time will obviously tell, but it is very likely that Governor Cuomo will face far more challenges from Chancellor Rosa than he would like.
Which makes the sneering disdain from Mr. Cuomo’s budget spokesman so glaring. Under the terms of waivers from the worst provisions of the No Child Left Behind law that New York got from the Obama administration, the state has to identify and provide interventions for so-called priority and focus schools that comprise the bottom 5% and 10% of schools respectively. Additional legislation in New York requires that schools be identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”among the 5% designated “priority schools,” and these schools have very short timelines within which to make progress before they are at risk of extremely drastic consequences such as being closed and turned over to private management. The more savvy reader will note that, based upon test scores, there will ALWAYS be a “bottom 5%” of schools in the state, so even if schools currently on the list are removed, a fresh round of schools will be eligible for priority school status immediately and given the same threats.
Not that that matters to the Governor’s office which complained bitterly that NYSED used its authority to recognize schools facing severe consequences and had improved. Apparently, it doesn’t even matter that many of the schools removed from the list had actually made progress in the previous year according to federal accountability reports that were not available when they were originally listed. If I had to guess, I’d wager that Governor Cuomo is most upset that the schools are no longer legally under threat of being shut down and given to charter school networks so clearly favored by him and by his campaign donors. Recognize that the schools in question were making progress? Recognize that remaining on the list would keep them under constant threat even though they had succeeded in beginning the improvement process? Recognize that progress should be supported and call for ways to continue to support the schools even though they no longer met the criteria for “struggling” and “persistently struggling” schools? Recognize that some of the interventions slated under the state grants – such as developing community schools with wrap around services for high need students – are interventions that all schools with students in extreme poverty should consider?
Not a chance in Hell. This is Andrew Cuomo’s Albany.