ALBANY — In a blow to New York's powerful teachers union — one likely to have a major impact on campaign spending this fall — the state Legislature failed to agree on changes to the unpopular teacher evaluation system that has frustrated teachers, parents and education policymakers since its enactment in 2015.
The Senate and Assembly closed out their 2018 sessions without a compromise on competing bills to address the link between teacher reviews and math and English Language Arts tests in grades 3 through 8 that critics say overemphasizes standardized testing and causes anxiety for both students and teachers.
New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union, had been doggedly pushing legislation to decouple the state exams from teacher reviews. The union blamed Senate Republicans and Majority Leader John Flanagan for trying to tie the initiative to other controversial education issues.
"Kids are crying, they're disgusted, and they're really feeling the pain of this testing obsession," NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said Thursday morning. "And teachers are graded on some algorithm — some weird growth model — that no one understands. Flanagan and company had a chance to fix that, and they didn't."
Pallotta declared that NYSUT will remember which Republican senators, along with Democratic Sens. Jeff Klein of the Bronx, Diane Savino of Staten Island, David Valesky of Oneida and Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, voted to advance Flanagan's bill. The teachers union is always one of the largest spenders on state elections, and often is the largest. NYSUT's super PAC topped the donor list at $5,781,576 in 2016.
"Our members are fired up," Pallotta said. "They cannot believe their local officials, some of which — many of which — have no charter schools within 100 miles, can support a bill to support charter schools and then ultimately do nothing for local control."
On Wednesday afternoon the Senate advanced NY S 8992 (17R) with a 35-25 vote that would have repealed the Annual Professional Performance Review system, leaving the teacher evaluations almost entirely up to collective bargaining. But the bill also included language to increase the number of charter schools in the state and weaken state oversight of curriculum at non-public schools, including yeshivas.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie ruled out the extra provisions in Flanagan's legislation as poison pills and said there would be no trades on teacher evaluations in the Democratic Assembly, which had already passed a NYSUT-backed straight decoupling of the tests and evaluations, especially because the Senate was not offering to sacrifice anything in return.
"We're always open to compromise, the thing is, the compromise can't violate our principles and our values," Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle said as legislative activity wound down on Wednesday."
The debacle already has been written into the campaign rhetoric of Democrat Jim Gaughran, the Suffolk Water Authority chairman who is running again against Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) in Long Island, where backlash against the state exams resulted in a powerful opt-out movement.
Marcellino, who voted for Flanagan's bill, also sponsored the NYSUT-backed Senate version of the Assembly bill, NY S 8301 (17R), which had 55 Senate sponsors in the 63-member chamber, but skeptics in the Senate's leadership and the state Education Department warned there could be unintended consequences.
Up until late Wednesday evening, Marcellino said he was confident there would be a compromise with the Assembly on teacher evaluations, repeating an oft-heard Albany phrase: "There's time; nothing's over 'til it's over."
Gaughran, who lost to Marcellino by the relatively slim margin of 74,026 to 72,265 in 2016, said this week's inaction proves the need for new leadership.
"For weeks Senator Marcellino claimed to be working to pass this essential bill, but the reality is that he failed, and now students and teachers are going to suffer as a result." Gaughran said in a statement Thursday. "Long Island voters are tired of politicians' double-talk and false promises."
Some advocates, however, say the Legislature's failed effort is preferable to a fix that was crafted too quickly and should be addressed through the State Education Department.
The Board of Regents had placed a moratorium on the use of the math and ELA exams in the evaluations through the 2019-20 school year and was engaged in a multiyear process to revise regulations, which would avoid gubernatorial or legislative action until after 2018 elections.
"Our current evaluation system is broken because of six years of tweaks that twisted the law into the mess it is today, so it is time to leverage the expertise of educators and let the members of the Board of Regents continue with the work they are appointed to do and create smart solutions that fix teacher evaluation," said Evan Stone, co-Founder and co-CEO of teacher-led organization Educators for Excellence.
SED spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said extending the Regents' moratorium is a possibility as the department continues to develop solutions.
"We will resume the work we started earlier this year to engage teachers, principals and others as we seek input in moving toward developing a new educator evaluation system" DeSantis said Thursday.
State Sen. James Tedisco (R-Glenville), who co-sponsored the Senate version of the NYSUT-backed bill, said he is hopeful the Legislature will revisit the issue of evaluations, but he did not offer a specific timeline. Neither chamber is scheduled to convene until January.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who championed the initial 2015 legislation linking the state tests with evaluations but said last month that fixing the system is a priority, said he is open to calling the Legislature back this year to address unresolved speed camera legislation.