Cuomo seeks King’s ‘best advice’ on crafting aggressive education agenda

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is crafting an aggressive education agenda for his second term, and he’s asking outgoing Education Commissioner John King for his “best advice” about how to do it.

In a three-page letter to sent to King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Thursday, Jim Malatras, an aide to the governor, writes that Cuomo plans to “pursue an aggressive legislative package to improve public education.” Malatras then asks them to offer their own ideas about a variety of education issues, including how to change teacher evaluations, what should be done about the state’s charter-school cap, and what to do about New York City’s absent teacher reserve pool.

“How is the current teacher evaluation system credible when only one percent of teachers are rated ineffective?” Malatras asks. “How would you address the problem of removing poor-performing educators when the current 3020-a process makes it virtually impossible to do so?”

The scope of Malatras’ letter suggests that Cuomo wants to get involved in a much broader set of education policy debates than ever before. It also puts pressure on Tisch and the education department to produce specific policy suggestions as a leadership vacuum is emerging there, with King preparing to leave for the federal education department at the end of the month.

Cuomo has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the current state of the education system — saying recently that the newest teacher evaluation results do not “reflect reality” — though he has never been shy about his disdain for what he has termed the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy.” He has also often expressed frustration over the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy.

In his first term, Cuomo has occasionally subverted the state’s governance structure by diverting funds or threatening to pull aid from districts to support his priorities.

But Malatras indicates that even more issues are on the table in the months ahead. He wants to know if King and Tisch believe teachers should be required to spend more time in the classroom before being eligible for tenure, for example, and wades into the debate over why the city pays the salaries of thousands of excessed teachers.

The scrutiny of teacher-protection laws also suggests that Cuomo is ready to take up an issue that he avoided during his first term. Cuomo declined to back a legislative effort in 2011 to end the requirement that seniority be the sole factor in layoff decisions.

The letter also ratchets up pressure on Tisch as she oversees the search for a new education commissioner. It asks if there is a better way to select the Regents, whose members are currently appointed by the legislature, and if there should be more transparency around the commissioner-search process.

In response, Tisch said she looked forward to responding to Malatras’ letter. She has defended the Regents’ governance structure and the hiring process for the next commissioner in an interview last week.

“I leave the politics to the legislature and the governor,” Tisch told Chalkbeat last week. “We have our own sphere. I think we stick to it and we do a pretty good job.”

Tisch also said that a secret search for the commissioner is necessary because many candidates are afraid to jeopardize their current jobs by applying publicly.

One potential change not broached in the letter is increasing funding for low-income districts, whose students receive less state funding than districts with higher-income students do. Critics say Cuomo has ignored the issue in favor an agenda backed by political donors who want to undermine public education.

“This letter comes right out of the playbook of the hedge funders for whom education ‘reform’ has become a pet cause and who poured money into the Cuomo re-election campaign,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.