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“The rollback of education reform in New York has been the most dramatic in the country.”

That’s Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation in an article published last night on PoliticoPro. In this deep dive into the regression of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to education reform, Eliza Shapiro surveys the last three years of education politics in the most segregated state school system in the country. Because this piece is only available through the fee-based arm of Politico, here’s a synopsis (and a tip of the hat to my friend who sent the full piece over).

Shapiro’s account begins three years ago when Cuomo stood on the steps of the State Capitol in Albany as 11,000 students, parents, and teachers  from New York City huddled in the cold cheering for their ally in the quest for public educational equity. Writes Shapiro,

The children, dressed in matching neon yellow T-shirts reading “charter schools are public schools,” raised colorful signs painted by staffers from charter advocacy groups, and danced to Top 40 songs piped in on a massive speaker system.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took to the Capitol steps to chants of “Cuomo! Cuomo!” and surveyed the crowd of students and teachers bundled up on a freezing March day.

“You look so beautiful to me,” he said. “They say it’s cold out here, but I don’t feel cold, I feel hot! I feel fired up! We are going to save charter schools, and you’re making it happen by being here today!”

On that day in 2014, with the governor’s explicit blessing, education reformers believed they were close to fulfilling a decade-long quest to establish New York as a national model for education reform.

“You are not alone,” Cuomo told the adoring crowd.

The wish list of reform hopefuls wasn’t limited to the expansion of public charter schools. They also, along with others  troubled by New York’s — particularly NYC’s — notorious achievement gaps, yearned to release school leaders from the muzzle of LIFO, which requires that teachers be laid off by seniority, not effectiveness, and change old-school subjective teacher evaluations to reflect student academic growth, measured in part through standardized test scores.

Cuomo seemed right in sync with those desires. Shapiro writes that his bold agenda was “to grow the charter sector by 100 schools, create a $20 million merit pay pot for teachers and make it easier to fire teachers with poor ratings.”

But the revolution in New York City was never realized and all three reforms — charter expansion, elimination of LIFO, and evaluation reform —  “sputtered and stalled.”  Policy disappointments “have multiplied, and some charter leaders say President Donald Trump’s embrace of school choice has left the local sector grappling with a communal identity crisis.” With Cuomo contemplating a presidential campaign, he has “reconciled” with teacher union leaders.

In other words, Cuomo’s political ambitions, bolstered by a Board of Regents dominated by union lackeys dead-set on stasis, weakened his resolve to affect meaningful change. Instead, the Governor has expediently pivoted to the relatively innocuous realm of higher education costs.

Here’s a few choice tidbits from Shapiro’s analysis of Cuomo’s three-part regression.

From Bloomberg to de Blasio:

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city’s charter sector was nurtured from a fledgling system of two dozen schools into a robust 200-school system, including a number of nationally recognized multi-school networks.” However, the charter sector faced an “existential threat” upon the election of Bill de Blasio, who was “openly hostile to the charter movement, promising during his campaign for mayor to curb the sector’s growth and limit the influence of [Success Academy’s Eva] Moskowitz, its most outspoken leader.” Another error in judgement on the part of reformers was buying into “the myth” that they could “beat back” the teacher union’s antipathy to school choice. (Currently, of course, there’s the negative impact of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy de Vos, who regularly and erroneously conflates public school choice and private school voucher systems.)

Not that de Blasio’s on Easy Street. He barely managed to cling to another short term of mayoral control of the city schools that was due solely to a back-room deal where he agreed to stop denying unused city school space to charter schools. (How that’s going is a matter of opinion. Family for Excellent Schools notes today that there are 112 underused school buildings; de Blasio’s unwillingness to share space runs the taxpayer tab up to $40 million a year because state law requires NYC DOE to either co-locate or pony up the cash for rent.)

Teacher Evaluations: All A’s or Baloney?

Back in the early days, Cuomo wanted to tie student outcomes on state tests to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, a “dramatic increase” from the 20 percent that the union was accustomed to. But all seemed on track: in 2013, even United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew conceded that the state’s evaluation system was “inadequate.”

“One hundred percent of the schools adopted a teacher evaluation system,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address. “That’s the good news — we have teacher evaluation systems for every school in the system. The bad news is they are baloney.”

He pointed to the fact that almost every single teacher in New York was rated “effective” during the previous year, while some schools across the state continued to underperform.

“Who are we kidding, my friends?” Cuomo asked. “The problem is clear, and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.”

Then things got foggy. Republican-controlled states started pulling back on testing because they thought the tests infringed on local control. Suddenly New York was an outlier.  And (as I wrote here) 50 percent is just too high.

UFT saw an opportunity in the backlash, and launched an ad campaign that targeted the governor’s plan. Cuomo’s rhetoric spooked teachers and made him a convenient villain to animate the state and city opt-out movements, and mobilizing the union’s membership of 200,000 was like flipping a switch.

After months of sustained public protest from union members and parents and private pressure from union leaders and elected officials, Cuomo began to reverse course.

Taking a cue from his neighbor across the Hudson, Chris Christie,  Cuomo decided that the Common Core was no good and ordered revisions (that amount to nothing of substance). Then he backed a four-year moratorium on the use of any test scores in teacher evaluations. “Cuomo’s allies in the reform world looked on in agony, while his one-time enemies celebrated their victory.”

Progressive reformers still get flashbacks.

“We could have rolled this out in a more thoughtful way, where teachers felt more engaged and valued prior to using them for personnel decisions,” said Evan Stone, the director of the New York chapter of Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher coalition created to challenge the strength of national teachers’ unions.

“That was a bad decision,” said Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, adding, “Cuomo was out of step with where experts were headed on the evaluation process.”

The Flogging Will Continue Until Morale Improves:

The other big item on Cuomo’s agenda was the elimination of rules that force school administrators to lay off teachers in order of seniority, regardless of student need. It was timely, then, when in 2014 Campbell Brown and the Partnership for Educational Justice brought a suit called  Wright v. New York that “was inspired by a California court decision a few months earlier, when a judge ruled the state’s tenure protections denied California’s students their constitutional right to a sound and basic education.”

Here’s Shapiro:

Cuomo took up the mantle, proposing in his State of the State speech in 2015 to “reform the process to make it easier, fairer and faster to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.”

Brown and her allies applauded the governor’s commitment.

“Gov. Cuomo’s gutsy call for dramatic changes in New York education deserves support and praise from every political corner,” Brown wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed. And, “the UFT has worked aggressively to delay Wright v. New York with a series of challenges and legal roadblocks, leaving reformers with little to celebrate since the initial burst of publicity. While the union has lost two motions to dismiss the suit, two years have gone by without a publicized court hearing.”

Now reformers look to New York as a “cautionary tale” of “how sweeping reforms can dissipate seemingly overnight,” a parable of what not to do when lobbying for changes that privilege children over adults.

“The big question is, will the reform community take stock of what went badly,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, “or will they march on to the next silver bullet?”

What do you think?

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