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The Empire

Analysis | In Budget Address, Cuomo Positions Himself as Education Governor

By Joyce Purnick/WNYC Political Analyst

Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo took some heat from education reformers for failing to put his weight behind changing the way teachers are dismissed. Traditionally, if public school teachers have to be laid off, those with the least seniority – usually the youngest and theoretically the most innovative  – go first, ahead of those with seniority.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed hard to change what is known as LIFO (last in, first our), but he needed Cuomo to back him up. But the governor, in his first year in Albany, had other priorities.

Now, Cuomo is trying to make up for lost opportunities. In his State of the State address earlier this month, and in his budget Tuesday, he emphasized education reform, especially tougher teacher evaluations. There is a legitimate question about the likely impact of more rigorous teacher evaluations, but many reformers consider it to be the latest cure-all for what ails the public schools, and Bloomberg and now Cuomo are pushing hard for change.

The emphasis on teacher evaluations was most compelling headline to come out of the governor’s budget presentation because he had already done the heavy lifting to close a sizeable budget deficit last year. He and the Legislature restructured income taxes; his administration negotiated labor settlements that did not include wage increases; and he is holding to his plan to keep education and Medicaid increases to 4 percent instead of the usual 13 percent.

Those moves and some modest cuts close most of the deficit, and that in turn allowed Cuomo to focus on provocative policy matters instead of on numbers when he presented his executive budget Tuesday.

He wants pension reform – reducing pension payouts to public employees in the future – wants to build that large convention center and gambling casino at the Aqueduct Raceway in Queens. And he wants teacher evaluations.

Will he get them? He might figure he will get credit just for trying, but an ambitious politician like Cuomo would not typically take a big risk unless confident of the outcome. He could anticipate success because he has a powerful  weapon: Cuomo, as governor, controls the state purse strings. So he is threatening to withhold the planned increase in state education aid to school districts that fail to adopt a new teacher rating system. No deal, no money.

More than $700 million federal education aid is already in jeopardy because Washington has linked tough teacher evaluations to getting that Race to the Top money, and no district in the state has made changes. Cuomo’s threat raises the stakes to about $1 million in combined state and federal education money that schools could lose absent an agreement on teacher evaluations.

Meaningful teacher evaluations remain the third rail for teacher unions. But they might compromise rather than risk angering the public for robbing the schools of needed resources.

Of course, the public could also blame Cuomo for his tactic. But he has clearly calculated that he is more likely to win plaudits for taking a gamble in pursuit of change.