Local educators express concern over state education bill

(Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)
(Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

“They couldn’t have made a worse decision than what we have in our hands right now.”

For someone who has been a vocal critic of New York State’s public education system’s high-stakes testing model, which has been enacted for the past few years, Greenport and Southold Superintendent David Gamberg’s comments Tuesday about next year’s state education budget came as especially critical.

While the budget adopted April 1 increases education funding by over 6 percent statewide, it has been met with heavy pushback from educators near and far as Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues attempting to overhaul education accountability throughout the state.

The education bill, which actually funds far more than education — including ethics reforms — is one of 11 bills that were passed, comprising the state’s $142 billion budget. State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) voted for the measure while Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) opposed it.

Mr. Palumbo said in an interview that he views attempts to tie the education proposal to ethics as “holding ethics reform hostage. Who would have the guts to vote against a culture of corruption?”

But Mr. Palumbo did, and he wasn’t alone. Fifty-five assembly members opposed the education bill, including South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor). Ninety-two voted in favor of it. In the state Legislature’s upper chamber, 36 state senators favored the bill while 26 voted against it.

The biggest issue with the education bill, vocalized by educators past and present — as well as the state teacher’s union, which previously backed Mr. Cuomo for governor but didn’t endorse him in 2014 — is its increased use of standardized tests to evaluate teacher performance.

The state education department has until June to come up with a more precise model for local schools to follow, and then local school districts will have until November to implement customized plans of their own based on the state’s guidelines.

But some of the “blueprints” in the education bill, as Mr. LaValle called them, for evaluating teachers — not to mention the timeline for implementing the plan — already scare some.

According to the language of the law, if teachers earn an “ineffective rating” on the standardized assessment portion of the rating system, they cannot earn “effective” or “highly effective” overall evaluation ratings. Teachers who receive three consecutive “ineffective” ratings are charged with incompetence and will likely be fired within 30 days.

Before the final vote on the education bill, Mr. Thiele pointed out that the state has now passed reforms related to teacher evaluations three times in the past four years. The measures come in the wake of the federal Race to the Top initiative, a program that issued $4.35 billion in competitive grants in 2009 to states that adopted Common Core standards and developed plans to improve state test scores and teacher evaluation results. In 2010, New York State adopted Common Core in order to qualify for a $700 million portion of the federal grant.

“I am just thankful that we are not going to be held to the same standards that we want to hold teachers to,” Mr. Thiele told the chamber. “Because three ‘ineffectives’ in four years — we would not get a chance to do it a fifth year.”

Mr. LaValle didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. In a statement issued to the press, he said the reforms “will result in the removal of the incompetent individuals, while maintaining the quality educators that comprise the majority of the schools.”

But Mr. Gamberg said reforms could still be possible without the “misguided system” approved last week. In fact, he started a petition that has gathered over 100 signatures statewide from other superintendents calling for more debate and input from those in education before enacting reforms.

The petition went unheeded, however, as the state education department was put in charge of fine-tuning the new evaluation system. During a radio interview with WCNY’s “Capitol Pressroom” after the budget was passed, Mr. Cuomo said opposition to evaluation reforms was something “that’s being seized upon to excite parents.”

Lisa Goulding, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association (the Riverhead teacher’s union), said Tuesday that while she’s disappointed in the state legislature and governor, the union has worked with administrators in the past to reform teacher evaluations. And it will just have to do it again.

“We came out with a plan we thought was a fair plan,” she said, referring to recent reforms. “I think the district would say the same as well. Hopefully the same thing will happen here.”

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