With two key Senate elections on Tuesday, the fate of New York state’s Senate is up in the air — and some important education issues could hang in the balance.
If the Democrats pick up two Senate seats in the Bronx and Westchester County, they will have a majority on paper in a chamber that has been dominated by Republicans for years. They will not, however, be able to move Democratic agenda items forward this term without help from Simcha Felder, a rogue Democrat who has a spot in the Republican conference. Felder sent a statement Tuesday saying he would remain with the GOP until the end of the session, quashing any hopes for an instant change in chamber dynamics.
But the broader sea change, including the reconciliation of two factions of Senate Democrats, could make a difference after further elections in November.
The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly have split predictably on education issues for years. The Senate fought for charter schools and private schools, while the Assembly protected New York City interests and sought larger sums of money for public schools.
But if Democrats eventually lead the Senate after November’s elections, school funding, charter school policy, and how students are disciplined could all be revisited. Here’s what you should know about how education policy could change:
Immigrant students could get new protections
Year after year, the Democratic-led Assembly has passed a bill that would give undocumented immigrants access to state college aid. The Senate Republicans, on the other hand, has rarely bring it to the floor for debate.
The DREAM act could have better chances if the Democrats take control of the Senate. It’s one of the top issues that Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins mentioned in her budget priorities this March. Additionally, the governor and top state education officials support the measure.
Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she is interested in seeing more support for English Language Learners and undocumented students.
“The unification [of two Democratic factions] is an opportunity to advance many of the issues that, I think have, in many ways, not moved forward,” Rosa said to Chalkbeat on Monday.
Passing the DREAM act could also beef up the governor’s progressive credentials in a year when he is facing a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who is running to the left of Cuomo.
School funding could get a boost
A Democratic majority in the Senate could help boost school funding.
Though the Senate Republicans typically push for more spending restraint than the Assembly, Cuomo is arguably a more formidable roadblock to increasing school aid. Each year, he proposes spending less on schools than either the Assembly or the Senate. Last year, he proposed a change to foundation aid that some advocates said amounted to a “repeal” of the formula.
“I think that a Democratic Senate would make a big difference,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has long fought for additional school funding. “But I think that Governor Cuomo would still be a major impediment.” (Since lawmakers have finished this year’s budget, any significant school funding changes would have to take place next year.)
Cuomo is also being challenged a primary opponent who has made school funding central to her campaign and has worked as a spokesperson for AQE. If she pulled off an upset in November, school funding dynamics could change dramatically.
Charter schools might lose a key ally
Senate Republicans have been key allies for the charter schools — so losing them would probably spell bad news for the sector.
For instance, Senate Republicans supported charter school priorities in their budget proposal, including ending the limit on how many new schools can open and providing more money for schools that move into private space. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his conference have also been reliable backers of charter schools at the end of budget negotiations, often helping to secure extra funding.
In stark contrast, the Senate Democrats proposed additional transparency and accountability measure for charter schools. Their budget was praised by state and city teachers union leaders, who are foes of the charter sector.
However, the breakaway group of Democrats now reconciled with their Democratic colleagues are more supportive of charter schools. The leader of the breakaway group, Jeff Klein, has been at Albany’s massive charter school rallies. Klein and his allies could help block any major charter school policy shifts.
School discipline policies could shift
A Senate flip could change statewide rules related to school discipline.
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who chairs the chamber’s education committee, has sponsored legislation that discourages suspensions and promotes the use of “restorative” discipline practices, including solving behavioral issues through peer mediation and class meetings. It would also prohibit the use of suspensions in kindergarten through third grade, except in extreme circumstances. (New York City has already curbed suspensions for the city’s youngest students.)
Teacher evaluation discussion may get another life
In their perfect world, state teachers union officials would see repeal of the state’s unpopular teacher evaluation law this year and a push to let local districts decide how to evaluate educators.
“We are hopeful that there is a serious discussion about teacher evaluations,” said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn.
But so far, lawmakers haven’t been taking up the issue. Instead, the Board of Regents has been leading the charge by spelling out a long-term plan to revamp the evaluations.
Would having Democrats in charge in the Senate change that dynamic? It’s possible but not likely. In their budget proposal, Senate Democrats seem philosophically-aligned with the state teachers union, arguing that there are too many “state mandates” when it comes to evaluations. But their proposed process for solving the problem (convening a team of experts) is more in line with the Board of Regent’s vision. Additionally, any teacher evaluation change would require Cuomo to tackle the unpopular issue in an election year.
This story has been updated to reflect that Senator Simcha Felder will remain with the GOP until the end of the session.