Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski on the 2015-2016 Education Budget

Education was one of the most important and contentious parts of this year’s budget. Opposing the Governor's 50% testing component for teacher evaluations was a major priority of mine. Below is a FAQ to help explain the Legislature's power in the budget process and the changes that were made to the Governor's plan.

Was the Governor’s Reform Agenda Passed?

No, what passed was a negotiated plan that was significantly different than the Governor’s plan. The Assembly worked on behalf of teachers, students, and parents for the past two and a half months to change the Governor’s original budget proposal. The following are some of the major changes between the Governor’s original proposal and the final language:

1. The Governor proposed to have 50% of a teacher’s evaluation based on student test scores. Throughout the budget process, the Assembly fought the Governor on this testing component, the most controversial part of his plan. We were able to completely eliminate any type of percentage and instead agreed to a matrix. Under this matrix a teacher’s observation component trumps any performance component in virtually all circumstances. In fact, if a teacher scores effective or highly effective on their observation they cannot be deemed ineffective due to any test scores.

2. Just as importantly, the Assembly rejected the notion that raw test scores be used to evaluate a teacher. Instead, we empowered the Board of Regents, with the help of experts and the public, to determine a rational, research based model, where performance criteria is based upon growth. They will also be required to analyze the difficulty of evaluating special education students, high performing students, non-tested subjects and the varying difficulty levels of year to year Regents exams.

3. The Governor proposed changing tenure from 3 years to 5 years and required teachers to get 5 straight effective ratings. The Assembly changed this proposal to 4 years and only required 3 out of 4 effective ratings.

4. The Governor proposed that an independent evaluator handle all evaluations. The Assembly changed this proposal to permit both school principals and other in-district administrators or peer reviewers to perform the evaluations.

5. The Governor proposed that a teacher be automatically terminated after 2 straight ineffective ratings. The Assembly changed this proposal to ensure that teachers rated effective on observation could not be rated ineffective because of testing and took away the automatic termination after 2 years. After 2 years that district would have an option of bringing a hearing and the teacher would be able to rebut the findings based upon other surrounding circumstances.

6. The Governor proposed a school aid increase of $377 million unless all of his reform proposals were passed. The Assembly was able to modify these proposals and increase school aid by $1.6 billion.

7. The Governor proposed a tax credit to private and public educational foundations. Opposed by numerous public school advocates, the Assembly was successful in outright rejecting this proposal.

Why did the Assembly have to negotiate?

By putting his reforms in the State budget, the Governor changes the normal legislative process. Throughout the year, the Legislature controls the legislative process. The Assembly and Senate have to pass a bill and the Governor needs to sign it in order for something to become law. During the budget, this process completely changes. Our State constitution gives the Governor the legislative power during the budget process. All budget bills must emanate from the Governor and the Legislature cannot change budget language without the Governor’s approval. This prevents the Assembly from passing its own budget, or even working with the Senate to pass a budget and override a Governor’s veto. The Legislature is forced to negotiate with the Governor in order to change his budget. Several years ago, during the Pataki administration, the Assembly sued the Governor over this inequitable power. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals ruled against the Legislature and further strengthened the Governor’s power.

Why couldn’t the Assembly just refuse to pass the budget and force a late budget?

With a late budget there was a major threat that the Governor’s original reform agenda, without our changes, could become law. Evaluations based 50% on testing, a five-year tenure, automatic termination based upon two straight in-effective ratings is a difficult risk to take given the Governor’s constitutional powers and recent history. A good example of this threat is the 2010 budget. In 2010, Governor Paterson proposed a $1.086 billion cut to education. The Assembly restored funding in our “one house” proposal, fought this cut and refused to compromise. The budget was late and a government shutdown was threatened. In August, after almost five months of fighting over the cuts, the Governor forced through his budget with a $1.13 billion cut to education, a cut larger than what was originally proposed. This cut, which was an expansion of the GAP elimination adjustment, continues to hurt our school districts. With the benefit of hindsight, if we were able to compromise on the original plan and restore some of the $1.086 billion, the end result would have been better for our schools. However, if we compromised on any cut before the April 1st deadline it would have seemed like we gave in to the Governor’s harmful policy. Furthermore, the days of severely late budgets are over; 2010 was the last late budget. Before 2010, when a budget was late, a Governor would submit what are known as "extender bills" which would keep government running until the final budget was passed. This process ended several years ago when Governor Paterson began submitting his actual budget proposals within these "extender bills." The Legislature would be forced to either pass his budget or shut down government. A shut down of government could close our hospitals, jails, police, roads, etc. Most importantly, this extender bill would not be the negotiated proposals listed above, but rather the Governor’s original budget with all of his original reforms intact.

Can anything be done now to make the evaluations more equitable?

Absolutely. We fought to give the power to the Board of Regents, instead of the Governor, to further craft this process in a way that makes sense. I have already spoken to our new regent, Judith Johnson, who has experience as a classroom teacher, about suggestions I have gotten from teachers in my district. I invite you to join this process and I will ensure your voice is heard as the Board of Regents works with experts in the field. I am willing to meet or talk with teachers anytime.