State & teachers reach agreement on evaluation plan

PHOTO: Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio

Just hours before a deadline imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, state education officials and the teachers unions came to some agreements on a statewide teacher evaluation plan.

Cuomo had offered an ultimatum to teachers and the state education department: come to an agreement on a long stalled teacher evaluation system, or the governor said, he would impose his own plan as part of his 30 day amendments to his budget. Cuomo had until the close of business Thursday to legally amend his budget, and by noon time, the agreement was announced. Cuomo called it a “major step forward”.

Cuomo says the teacher evaluation agreement will now ensure that the state receives $700 million dollars in federal funds that are part of the Race to the Top program, that the governor says were in jeopardy over the stalemate.

“This agreement today should secure the federal funding, which was at risk,” Cuomo said.

The agreement also settles an on-going lawsuit between the teachers union and the State Education Department. New York State United Teachers had sued, because they said, State Ed had unfairly changed the terms of a May 2010 teacher evaluation law. The original agreement required that 20% of a teacher’s grade be based on standardized tests, the Education Commissioner, working with Governor Cuomo, had upped that amount to 40%. A judge ruled in favor of the teachers union last summer.

The final agreement offers a compromise. 20% of teacher evaluations will be based on student scores on standardized tests, and another 20% of the teacher’s grade will be based on standardized test scores, but there will be some leeway for interpreting those test scores.

New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi admits that the original agreement had included some language that was murky, and had led to delays and even threats of more legal action.

“There were words here that caused people to say ‘I’m just going to wait until I go to court to figure this out’,” Iannuzzi said.

Under the agreement, teachers and administrators will have to choose from a limited menu of options of how they can interpret those test scores for the second 20% of a teacher’s grade. And the agreements from all the over 700 school districts in the state will now be subject to the authority of State Education Commissioner John King. King now has a new power, to approve or reject the agreements.

Commissioner King, as well as Governor Cuomo, say the evaluations are not meant to be punitive, but King admits it will ultimately result in the removal of some teachers deemed unsatisfactory.

“Certainly there are people who will struggle, we’ll get them support,” says King, but he say for some teachers  “this may not be the right profession”.

The deal also includes the settlement of a bitter stumbling block between New York City’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The two sides had been unable to agree on an appeals process for teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations.  UFT President Mulgrew says he hopes the agreement can break the logjam and lead to an ultimate settlement on evaluations for New York City teachers.

“This is the fairness we have been asking for from the beginning,” Mulgrew said.

The teacher evaluation plan, as well as the agreement over  the appeals process, will now become part of the governor’s 30 day budget amendments, but the difference is that now all of the key parties agree to the provisions.

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, attended the announcement , but was not part of the talks. He says while it sounds like the deal will provide some clarity to what school administrators viewed as a complicated law, he’ll need to see the details first.

“What I heard here today sounded positive,” Kremer said. “It sounded like it’s going to be something we could work with.”

Cuomo says Thursday’s settlement is just step one of a two part process.  Teachers and administrators in school districts must now work out the details of the evaluations and submit them to the state education officials.  If they fail to have everything in place by next January, and do not win the State Education Commissioner’s approval for their plans, then they will be denied a previously promised increase in school aid.

“If they don’t have it done at the end of the year, we will withhold the additional 4% state funding,” Cuomo said.

The governor says schools that achieve their agreements early, by September, will get credit toward a competition for $250 million dollars in grants that Cuomo intends to award, as part of his school aid budget.