Education Budget Letter

Dear Friend, I want to share with you my thoughts on the recently passed 2015-16 state budget and what it means for New York’s schools. This year’s state budget is the result of a hard-fought battle between the Legislature and the governor over his radical education agenda – which I strongly opposed. As a former teacher I fully understand the concerns that parents and teachers have voiced. For more than 20 years I have represented those most disadvantaged by high stakes standardized testing. As an attorney I believe ethics reform – which was part of the education bill – is critical for restoring the public's trust. The governor’s budget put these and other important issues in significant tension.

Assembly Fought the Governor’s Ill-Conceived Education Proposals
In this year’s unprecedented move, the governor used the state budget to push his extreme education policy initiatives and hold school funding hostage in the process. The governor targeted teachers with drastic policy changes. His proposed “reforms” failed to take into account important factors – both inside and outside of the classroom – that affect the success of our students and teachers. My Assembly colleagues and I fought hard to protect educators and boost funding for our schools. The Senate refused to do the same.
New York’s Budget Process Gives Governor Sweeping Powers
New York’s highest court ruled twice, in 2001 and 2004 that the governor could put law and policy proposals in his appropriation bills, and the legislature could not amend them. Here’s a link to an article from the New York Times describing the governor’s enormous powers in the crafting of New York State’s budgets. In 2005, the legislature put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to change the governor’s practice of putting policy into appropriations without the power of the legislature to amend them, but it was defeated in a statewide referendum by two-thirds vote. The Governor's proposal for teacher evaluations would have evaluations done by outside evaluators – third parties with no connection to a teacher’s district, let alone her school, and linked education funding to the passage of his entire education package - including for example, Education Investment Tax Credits for millionaire hedge funders. Unfortunately under our Constitution, the legislature has but two choices: accept or reject. A rejection would empower the Governor to enact his plan in its entirety through budget extenders (essentially a series of executive orders that you can read more about in this article by Peter Goodman in "Ed in the Apple"), something my Assembly colleagues and I believed to be far worse. For many reasons I've cited before, the Assembly Majority rejected the Governor's proposal in its Assembly one-house bill budget bill passed earlier in March. I have been very vocal in my belief that policy should not be embedded into the budget and that teacher evaluations should not include student test scores at all. Unfortunately, because of federal Race to the Top provisions, the legislature did so in 2011. That was not the linkage to which I referred in a prior email and I should have been clearer.
Governor Isn’t Shy About Using His Budget Powers
The governor has increasingly put policy proposals in his appropriation bills. The Legislature has sought to negotiate these details rather than face the possibility of either a government shutdown or the governor’s enacting his original proposal unilaterally through budget extender bills. This year, the governor submitted radical changes in the education appropriation bill. He tied any school aid increase to the Legislature approving his proposals that would only make the situation worse:
  • using 50% test scores for teacher ratings and 35% for outside evaluators;
  • increasing barriers to tenure;
  • adding more charter schools;
  • creating education tax credits for the very wealthy; and
  • putting low-performing schools into receiverships.
But that’s not all he put into the budget bills. He also wrapped his ethics law changes into them.
Final Budget Significantly Blunted Governor’s Proposals
In the end, the Assembly Majority fought for and won major concessions. We took the evaluation system out of the hands of the governor, and put it into the hands of the Board of Regents. The Regents will work with experts to develop teacher evaluations that place less emphasis on state test scores. To ensure the Regents can do the job the Legislature fought hard to secure funding to undertake this important task. We secured a significant increase from what the governor proposed to $23 billion in education aid – an increase of $1.6 billion over last year. The New York City school system will get a 6% increase over last year’s aid. Increased numbers of charters has been dropped from the budget. Teacher tenure will now be four years, with effective ratings in three of four years, rather than the Governor’s proposal of five years in a row of effective ratings. The language of the teacher rating part of the budget drops all reference to specific percentages for test scores and outside evaluators, and directs the Regents to develop a plan for teacher evaluations by June 30. It gives the Regents and the Education Commissioner the authority to set the weights for test scores and teacher observations, the growth targets, and the scoring ranges for the effective, ineffective, developing and highly effective ratings. It also allows local school districts the option of adding another measure for student performance in addition to test scores. Additionally, it gives the Regents the authority to set the standards for outside evaluators (what percentage to use in observations), and allows the districts to use in-district personnel and even peer review.
A Far From Perfect Budget … But We Can Continue Making It Better
This year’s budget is certainly far from perfect, but the alternative – the governor’s original proposal – would have been much worse for our schools. That it was the best deal we could get by the United Federation of Teachers. The fight isn’t over. I want to limit high-stakes testing and remove it from teacher evaluations. Federal policy has tied the legislature’s hands thus far, but it is a battle – grounded in science – that we will continue to wage on behalf of our students and teachers at both the federal and state levels. I will be working closely with our Regents to ensure that local schools and parents are heard. In the meantime, if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me at or (718) 246-4889. Sincerely,
Jo Anne Simon