New York’s elected officials may have learned a lesson – don’t mess with the state’s teachers.
This session, the state Legislature is coalescing around a bill to decouple public school teacher evaluations from state test scores. It already passed in the Assembly and has garnered broad, bipartisan support in the state Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled that he would sign the bill if it was passed by the state Legislature.
But state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has the power the block the legislation from coming to a vote, which may be the last hurdle that keeps it from passing before the end of the session in June.
Earlier this month, Flanagan, formerly the chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, issued a statement about the legislation that wasn’t an endorsement but also didn’t dismiss it. He said the state Senate was performing “an extensive review of this legislation to determine the best path forward,” citing concerns that the bill would result in even more testing. Under the proposal, each district would implement its own assessments to evaluate teachers.
While this leaves the door open for the state Senate to take action this session, Flanagan added that discussions will happen “in the coming weeks and months.” The phrasing seems to preclude any immediate action and makes it appear that he may not bring it up for a vote before the end of the session on June 20, despite the bill apparently having the support to pass.
A spokesman for the state Senate Republican conference wouldn’t weigh in on the likelihood that the legislation would pass this session, reiterating that Flanagan and other members of the chamber are in active conversations to address the concerns of education groups that the legislation, as currently written, could have unintended consequences. The spokesman did say that nothing about the legislation is a done deal, adding that one potential path could be revising the bill and sending it back to the Assembly.
“I will work to make it pass. I’ve talked to Cathy Nolan over in the Assembly, and she’s willing to do whatever has to be done.” – state Sen. Carl Marcellino, sponsor of the bill to decouple student test scores from teacher evaluations
That possibility was also raised by state Sen. Carl Marcellino, the bill’s sponsor in the state Senate. He told City & State that he is highly confident it will pass this year, and does not see Flanagan standing in the way. He added that he is willing to make adjustments in conjunction with the Assembly.
“I will work to make it pass … I’ve already talked to Cathy Nolan over in the Assembly, the Assembly chair (of the Education Committee), and she’s willing to talk and do whatever has to be done to get the bill through,” Marcellino said. “We will get the bill passed.”
Marcellino offered no details about the specifics of those discussions and would not say what those possible changes might look like or if they would be necessary to get the bill out of committee and up for a vote. Nolan did not return multiple requests for comment.
The bill is still in the state Senate Education Committee, where it has been since April 27. This means that the committee’s members haven’t reached enough of a consensus to move it through, and even if that happened, it would still not be guaranteed to make it to the floor for a vote, a decision that often relies on Flanagan’s support. Despite having 54 co-sponsors in the 63-seat chamber, the bill may not be as strongly supported as it may appear. In contrast, the Assembly version was moved out of committee, brought to a vote and passed in less than a week.
New York State United Teachers, the powerful teachers union, has long pushed for teacher evaluations to be decoupled from state tests. The teacher assessment system was overhauled in 2010, giving weight to student performance on those tests. In 2015, Cuomo signed legislation to increase that weight, which was met with a strong backlash from NYSUT. Almost immediately, the state agreed to a five-year moratorium on using student test scores to evaluate teachers, effectively rendering Cuomo’s legislation moot and giving New York ample time to figure out a different system.
NYSUT strongly supports the new legislation, which completely removes student scores on state tests from teacher evaluations. In a statement urging Flanagan to bring the bill to a vote, NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta said allowing districts to create their own evaluation systems increases local control and reduces the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, which spurred a massive opt-out movement.
However, opponents of the bill fear that it will simply put even more of a testing burden on students, since every district would need to create its own teacher assessment models. Others have argued that it would lower standards in some districts and make it difficult to tell which schools are falling behind.
Flanagan said the state Education Department and the New York State Council of School Superintendents have raised similar concerns.
On the syllabus
In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the state Senate passed a package of bills to enhance school safety. One contentious bill would require an armed police officer at every school in New York City. Other measures include more mental health and counseling resources and methods to fund additional security personnel at schools. The Assembly instead passed gun control legislation in response to the shooting, which included banning bump stocks and allowing measures to take guns out of the hands of people who pose a risk to themselves or others. The state Senate legislation is opposed in the Democratic Assembly, and the Assembly package is opposed by state Senate Republicans. Substantive changes on school safety appear to be unlikely this session.
State DREAM Act
As the national debate rages about the DREAM Act, some New York lawmakers are still pushing for a more limited state version. The state DREAM Act, first introduced in 2013, would allow undocumented immigrants to access the same in-state college scholarships and financial aid available to citizens. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Democrats included it in their budget proposals this year. The bill has passed the Assembly every time it has been brought to the floor, but once again the measure fell out of the budget due to opposition from state Senate Republicans – who are unlikely to support the bill in the second half of the session.
Charter school cap
The perennial fight over charter schools in New York was on full display last year, as state Senate Republicans pushed to raise the cap on such schools in exchange for extending mayoral control of New York City’s schools. In the end, lawmakers agreed to extend mayoral control for two years, longer than the one-year extensions they had approved in recent years. Then, without actually raising the cap, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to allow more charter schools by reusing old charters from schools that had shut down or ones that were not in use. Yet advocates continue to say the cap should be eliminated. According to the New York City Charter School Center, 38 charters are available in New York City.
A 2014 study found New York state had the most racially segregated schools in the country. Segregation is even more pronounced in New York City, the nation’s largest and most diverse school district. State and city policymakers have been exploring solutions to the problem. State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa created a research group to do so in 2016, but it has yet to submit any proposals to the regents. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a school diversity plan last year, but some advocates considered it moderate and unambitious. School segregation has gained greater public attention after a viral video of a white Upper West Side mother opposing a plan to integrate students from a lower performing school, where the majority of students are minorities, into her daughter’s high-performing school.
Secular education at private schools
In New York City, certain yeshivas have been under investigation since 2015 for not adequately providing a secular education to students. In December, the state Board of Regents drafted revisions to the state guidelines for private schools, meant to ensure that private school students received a “substantially equivalent” education to the education received by public school students. The move sparked backlash and accusations of government overreach. The issue made news recently when state Sen. Simcha Felder held up state budget negotiations in order to insert language that limits state oversight of religious schools like yeshivas. It made news again when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came to New York City, but only visited two Orthodox Jewish schools, not one of the city’s more than 1,800 public schools.