Despite fight with unions, Gov. Cuomo calls education reforms transformative, pro-teacher

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday defended the contentious educational reforms he fought to include in the state budget as transformative and said that when combined with a big school funding increase, they make this budget the "most pro-teacher" ever.

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The Democratic governor's comments to The Associated Press came after a bruising fight with teachers unions over the changes, which include revisions to teacher evaluations, new rules for the dismissal of ineffective teachers and changes to the process by which the state can take over chronically struggling schools.

Lawmakers included the reforms along with $1.4 billion in additional school funding in the state budget approved early Wednesday.

"The largest investment in history. The most pro-teacher budget in history," Cuomo said. "My mother was a schoolteacher. I have tremendous respect for teachers. There is no state budget that has honored teachers more than this."

Teachers unions scoff at the assertion. While they support the spending increase, they say Cuomo's emphasis on evaluations tied to student test performance unfairly blames teachers for the economic and social challenges many students face.

"He basically said, 'I'm declaring war on teachers and public education,'" said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "This was the first battle. The governor thought he was going to get all of this stuff, and he did not get it."

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Cuomo initially suggested his own revisions to evaluations; now it will be up to state education officials to oversee the changes. The governor's proposals relating to the state takeover of struggling schools was modified. A call to authorize more charter schools was removed from the budget to be considered separately later this year.

Still, Cuomo's education reforms dominated the floor debate over the $142 billion budget. Even some supporters acknowledged reservations about Cuomo's plan.

"I won't go as far as to say we love it, but it's a reasonable compromise," said Democratic Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Queens, chairwoman of the Assembly's Education Committee.

The governor said he views his reforms in the context of his future legacy and as a struggle against who he calls "the most political forces that run Albany ... the forces of the education industry ... the supporters of the political establishment."

"Government often tries episodic solutions or partial solutions because the political process doesn't allow for a wholesale solution," he said during a phone interview. "Sometimes incremental doesn't work. Sometimes you can't fix a part of the chain. You have to replace the entire chain."

In response to his proposals, unions held protests throughout the state and mounted an aggressive advertising campaign to criticize the governor.

The fight is expected to continue, with debates over charter schools and mayoral control of New York City schools expected to loom large in the final two months of the legislative session.

State education officials will now oversee the details of the new evaluations. They will be required to follow rules spelled out in the budget. The evaluations will continue to use test performance and teacher observation as critical factors. Local districts could choose to add a second test to the evaluation criteria.

The evaluations will be used in the process for dismissing ineffective teachers, as well as for awarding tenure and bonuses for teachers deemed to be highly effective.

Teachers unions say they plan to push for an evaluation system they believe is fair.

"We'll just continue to fight and push back and continue to point out that an overreliance on testing is not good for kids, and it doesn't in any shape or form evaluate teachers," said Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers.