Cuomo Calls for Education Commission, But Is Vague on Details

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"The lobbyist for the students." That is how the governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, positioned himself on educational matters in 2012.

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, the governor announced that he would appoint a commission to work with the State Legislature and recommend changes to how teachers are evaluated and how schools' spending and performance are managed.

Addressing one of his oft-repeated concerns, Mr. Cuomo said that education in New York was "driven by the business of public education," rather than performance, leading to high costs and an undesirable place on the 38th rung, nationally, for graduation rates.

In a speech that only touched on educational matters -- and when it did it was very short on details -- Mr. Cuomo did not say whom he would appoint to the bipartisan commission or whether he would look to outside education groups rather than state agencies. But he did say that commission members would be jointly appointed by himself and the Legislature. Plans to establish the commission were reported Monday by The Daily News.

Referring to Race to the Top, a federal grant competition New York State won last year, Mr. Cuomo said that a 2010 law passed by the Legislature requiring a new teacher evaluation system to be in place to comply with the grant application "just didn't work."

That law was supposed to scrap the current teacher evaluation system, which rates teachers either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Instead, principals would place teachers in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective.

But state officials, as well as New York City officials, have been unable to reach agreements with the teachers union on precisely how to implement the law. Last week, discussions between the city's Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers broke down, putting a federal school improvement grant in jeopardy.

"Two years and it hasn’t even started yet," Mr. Cuomo said. "Our children deserve better than that, and hopefully they will get it this year."

Although there were 300 schoolchildren from around the state in the audience, education played a minor role in the governor's speech, which dwelled mainly on plans to create jobs, repair the state's infrastructure and alter the tax code. He spoke of plans to pare down public employee pensions, but made the remark in the context of all state agencies, not education in particular.

Zakiyah Ansari, a Brooklyn parent activist and the advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, said that if the governor intended to lobby on behalf of students, he should increase funding to schools.

"What our children need Governor Cuomo to do is to listen to what parents and students are saying by restoring funding for lost after-school programs, art, music and college prep courses, especially for our neediest schools and students,” Ms. Ansari said.

At the end of his speech, the governor mentioned plans to create an internship program that would assign students to a particular agency or department and allow them to experience how government operates.

Here is an excerpt from a version of the governor's speech that was distributed to reporters shortly before his address.

I learned my most important lesson in my first year as Governor in the area of public education. I learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist.

Superintendents have lobbyists.

Principals have lobbyists.

Teachers have lobbyists.

School boards have lobbyists.

Maintenance personnel have lobbyists.

Bus drivers have lobbyists.

The only group without a lobbyist?

The students.

Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job — consider me the lobbyist for the students. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.