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State of the State to offer look at Cuomo’s aggressive ed agenda

After hinting for months that he will pursue aggressive changes to state education policy this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will offer the first real glimpse of his agenda on Wednesday.

Cuomo has released few details about his plans to address K-12 education issues in his State of the State address, which he will deliver Wednesday in Albany. But he is likely to focus on overhauling teacher evaluations and termination rules and dealing with the state’s lowest-performing schools, items the governor said on Tuesday were at the top of his education agenda.

“The single most important function that the state performs is education funding and education regulation,” Cuomo said after an unrelated speech. “And it probably has been the single greatest failure of this state in many ways.”

His pointed remarks, along with letter sent to state education officials last month and other recent statements about his desire to dismantle the public-education “monopoly,” suggest Cuomo is prepared to dive further into divisive policy debates that have made him a target of the city and state teachers unions.

What makes this year’s speech feel more significant, observers say, is that Cuomo has made it clear that a wide variety of policy issues are on the table. In December, a top aide’s letter to Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch asked for her feedback on issues ranging from teacher evaluations to the termination process for teachers guilty of misconduct. The letter also hinted at Cuomo’s interest in seeking more power over the Board of Regents, a 260-year-old body that sets education policy in New York state; lifting the state’s charter-school cap; and developing a way to take over schools that chronically underperform.

“I think the governor has been clear that he is not going to just be tinkering around the edges,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “He’s going to be looking for fundamental change.”

While Cuomo has called for closing low-performing schools in the past, he’s never pushed the legislature to intervene. On Tuesday, he stopped short of calling for such a takeover measure  but described the state’s struggling schools in dire — and specific — terms.

“We have about 178 failing schools,” Cuomo said, referring to the schools the state has designated as “priority” for improvement, 91 of which are in New York City. “About half have been failing for over 10 years.”

“You want to talk about a damning commentary?” he added. “250,000 students went through failing schools and we did nothing.”

For now, districts themselves hold most of the power when it comes to struggling schools. The State Education Department requires districts to submit school turnaround plans, but many of those schools have gone years without improving without significant state response.

But Cuomo’s legislative agenda hasn’t always been as aggressive as his tone when talking about the state’s public education system. In his 2012 State of the State speech, Cuomo appointed himself “the lobbyist for students,” but his main education-related announcement that year was to convene an education reform commission, for example.

In other years, Cuomo used the speech to draw attention to big ideas through relatively small competitive grant programs. In 2011, the grants were designed for districts that saved costs and raised student achievement; in 2013 and 2014, Cuomo proposed grants for merit pay, extended learning time, community schools, and pre-kindergarten.

The State of the State speech also sets up the governor’s priorities in upcoming negotiations with the state legislature, though it’s not always an accurate predictor of what emerges in at the end of the process. Last year, Cuomo didn’t mention charter schools in his State of the State speech, but ended up passing a law that gave New York City charter schools facilities funding after advocates launched an all-out lobbying campaign.

Cuomo’s agenda is sure to prompt fierce opposition from the city and state’s teachers unions.  Teachers and their allies in the legislature are insisting that any budget proposal include large increases in formula-based funding that prioritizes low-income school districts.

On Tuesday, those same groups followed up on a rally in the Capitol last week calling on Cuomo to increase education funding by $2.2 billion, a sum even more than what the Board of Regents has proposed.

“Investing more in public education – and doing so fairly and equitably – must be a high priority this legislative session,” New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta said.