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Praising "consensus" report, Cuomo hints at education agenda

Embracing recommendations by a commission that he convened, Governor Cuomo yesterday offered a first glimpse of what his education agenda might look like when he rolls it out in his State of the State address next week.

His comments suggested that, unlike in previous years, in 2013 he will avoid taking a stand on some of the more divisive education issues, including teacher tenure and charter schools.

Cuomo formed the education reform commission last year as the engine to drive his promise to shake up the state’s school system, which, in his 2012 State of the State address, he painted as excessively expensive, under-performing, and driven by interest groups.

Exactly a year later, the commission’s first set of recommendations struck a less acerbic tone, endorsing policies that won the approval of a diverse set of groups — and a much more tepid reaction from the most aggressive reformers.

The headline recommendations included consolidating small school districts; strengthening teacher and principal preparation, including creating a bar-like exam for teachers; rewarding teachers for good performance, without clearly defining what that looks like; extending the school day and year; and creating community schools offering nonacademic services to low-income students.

“I think that, by and large, this was a consensus document,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a member of the commission. Weingarten said she would have liked if the report focused more on state education funding, but added, “There’s no one who dissented from it.”

Although he stopped short of vowing to push for the policies suggested in the report — he said he’d make a final announcement in his State of the State address next Wednesday — Cuomo lavished the recommendations with praise. He singled out the report’s endorsements of consolidation, performance-based pay, and community schools.

He offered more measured support for the commission’s endorsement of full-day pre-kindergarten classes for low-income students and an extended school day and year, which he said might turn out to be too expensive to implement. “That’s something we’re going to have to weigh,” he said of the early education idea.

The positioning reflects a departure for Cuomo, who early on in his term aligned himself with education groups that advocated for aggressive reforms to the school system. Cuomo campaigned as an ardent supporter of charter schools and was twice named an “Ed Reformer of the Month” by Democrats for Education Reform after he advocated successfully for test scores to play a larger role in evaluations.

In Wednesday’s report, the words “charter schools” appeared only as footnotes, including one that noted that “some Commission members” wanted charter schools to be allowed to operate the pre-K programs, which state law currently prohibits.

The report also avoided making recommendations about tenure and teacher evaluations, two contentious issues. The only reference to tenure appears in a background section that calls the protection “frequently misunderstood” as a “job guarantee” and suggests tenure could be granted more effectively once stronger teacher evaluations are in place. Richard Parsons, the chairman of the commission, said the group would not weigh in on evaluations until it publishes a second report in the fall.

One reason for the absence of charter schools might be that the sector’s most contentious issues are no longer as pressing at the state level. Two of the charter school fights that Cuomo campaigned in support of — raising the cap and keeping SUNY as a charter authorizer — have been settled.

Most education groups from around the state, including the heads of both the city and state teachers unions, praised the report’s recommendations. Other education advocates, including professors Diane Ravitch and David Bloomfield, expressed dissent on recommendations to boost online learning. And Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson criticized the report’s absence of any mention of class size.

Two groups that have spent months advocating for stronger teacher evaluation systems in New York City — one of the nine districts out of 689 still without an evaluation deal just two weeks before a deadline threatens to withhold funding — sounded cautious notes. And the New York City Charter School Center declined to make a statement at all.

“It’s hard to look forward when we may soon take a giant step backward,” StudentsFirstNY spokeswoman Chandra Hayslett. “We need a deal on teacher evaluations in every school district by Jan. 17, and then all New Yorkers should focus on the broader agenda that the Commission has begun to explore.”

Educators 4 Excellence-New York Executive Director Jonathan Schleifer said he supported recommendations that focused on teacher preparation, but said it was “impossible to have a serious discussion about many of these recommendations” until evaluation systems were in place.

Cuomo was heavily involved in helping the two sides come to an agreement on one part of the deal last year. But he has stayed out of negotiations entirely this time around, though he said yesterday that since he wrote the law that ties state funding to an evaluation deal, his presence at the negotiating table is felt.

“The city and the union know very well that if they don’t have an agreement by the deadline, they will lose hundreds of millions of dollars from the state, and in many ways they will both fail,” said Cuomo. “They will have failed the students and the union will have failed the membership because you’ll have a significant loss.”

In statements yesterday, Geoffrey Canada, the commission member with the strongest ties to the reform camp, said the group had so far agreed to put “petty politics” aside. But he reminded Cuomo that it will surface again as the commission digs deeper into policy implementation.

“I won’t warn the governor, because that’s too strong, but there’s some politics contained in why we haven’t been able to move education forward,” said Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that runs three charter schools.

Joe Williams, Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform, called the recommendations a “solid first step” and also forecast a political battle ahead.

“Drilling down on the specifics of how to make it work is undoubtedly going to kick up quite a bit of political dust,” Williams said in a statement.

Weingarten said that she was heartened by Cuomo’s shift in rhetoric about education policy.

“This administration walked away from ideology,” Weingarten said today, “and towards the really pragmatic and constructive ideas presented by the commission. And hopefully he adopts many of them.”

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