Bleak prognosis for education agenda after budget, corruption

It was already slim odds that education would get much action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature this session after they increased school aid, funded several education grants, and amended the teacher evaluation law during budget negotiations in March.

But in the aftermath of a federal corruption dragnet that has brought down several lawmakers, any glimmer of hope that education could get some attention seems to have vanished.

“With this legislative session, with all the corruption, I would be surprised if anything gets passed,” said Mona Davids, who runs the New York City Parents Union, a parent advocacy group. State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, of Brooklyn, sponsored a bill to end mayoral control that Davids lobbied for. The bill’s long odds grew even longer after Montgomery’s named surfaced last week as one of seven lawmakers recorded in the home of former Senator Shirley Huntley, who was cooperating with investigators to reduce a prison sentence. Huntley was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for embezzling funds from a charity she ran.

Davids said she believed Montgomery, who has not been charged, has done nothing wrong. Still, she said she doubted the bill could proceed before the session ends on June 30. “It’s May, but it’s over,” Davids said.

Davids’ pessimism reflects a growing sentiment in Albany that began shortly after the legislature passed the budget, when the first corruption cases surfaced. Since then, four lawmakers have been arrested on corruption charges as part of a federal investigation that seems to broaden by the week. As a result, even Cuomo’s agenda — which include a women’s equality act, publicly-funded campaign finance, and bringing casinos to New York — is in doubt.

Lobbyists, legislative aides, and advocates said in interviews this week that it’s not unusual for education to be placed on the back burner after the budget gets passed, though they said the recent events have further doomed the outlook.

Education was a top priority in 2010, when the state needed to pass laws to qualify for the federal Race to the Top grant, but since then, “most of the action has been around the state budget,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “Once the budget passes, that’s it.”

Williams said it’s been like that for the last two years, in response to steep budget cuts to education spending that have chilled lobbying efforts.

Occasionally though, hot-button issues do arise and get placed onto Governor Andrew Cuomo’s agenda. That was the case last year, when one of the last bills passed by the legislature before going home for the summer was a law to shield teacher evaluation ratings from public view.

This year appears was different, sources said.

“A lot got addressed in the budget,” a legislative source said. “There is no clear issue.”

This year’s budget included funding for grant programs that Cuomo championed through his education reform commission, including money for extended day, community schools, universal prekindergarten, and early college high schools.

Those were relatively easy compared to an amendment to the teacher evaluation law that Cuomo pushed for. The amendment inserted a financial penalty for districts that aren’t implementing their approved plans according to the law’s intent.

“Nobody wanted to touch this thing,” a source close to the negotiations said. “The union on one side, Bloomberg on the other. Both have strong advocates, but at the end of the day, they were sort of forced to figure out a solution.”

The unions are still hoping for traction on some of the bills they’ve proposed. The state teachers union’s big push is the “Truth-about-testing Act,” which would require the State Education Department to audit the costs of the state’s testing program. The two sponsors of that bill, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan and Sen. George Latimer, did not respond to requests for comment.

At the city level, the United Federation of Teachers is hoping to push longstanding priorities on its agenda, including changes to the mayoral control (it isn’t supporting Montgomery’s bill), place a temporary ban on school closings, and require local approval for school siting plans. It also is backing a bill that would eliminate the waiver option available to New York City chancellor candidates with no education experience.

The legislative session closed early this week due to a holiday. Speaking at a press conference to announce support for a bill to improve working conditions for farmers in the state, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he still had big plans for the rest of the session, beginning with the introduction of the DREAM Act next week and reforms to policing tactics known as stop-and-frisk.

“I would hope that we can stay focused on the kind of legislation I’m talking about,” said Silver.