After bumpy year, Cuomo unveils few education proposals in lead-up to State of the State

After proposing renovations to Penn Station and $200 million to revitalize upstate airports this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo plugged “community schools” as a way to reform the criminal justice system.

That’s the only mention Gov. Cuomo has made of public schools in a series of policy proposals released in advance of his combined State of the State and budget speech this Wednesday. The lead-up to this year’s speech is vastly different from last year, when the governor promised an aggressive education agenda — and delivered over the next several months.

Though it’s unclear whether Cuomo will unveil new education priorities Wednesday, the topic has already taken a backseat to other policies after a year in which Cuomo’s education policies drew fire from teachers and parents across the state.

“Last year at this time I was telling everyone I assume he’s going to say a whole bunch of things and we’re going to have a big fight,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said last week. “My judgment and my gut is saying that’s not going to be the case this year.”

The governor jolted educators last January by calling teacher evaluations “baloney” and rallying for another overhaul of the state’s teacher evaluation system. He also said he wanted struggling schools to be turned over to outside entities if they failed to improve over time.

Cuomo succeeded in passing both initiatives, but not without political bruises. The evaluation changes passed, but many legislators weren’t satisfied with the deal. Anti-testing sentiment grew, and one in five students opted out of state assessments last year.

This backlash has already caused Cuomo to retreat on teacher evaluations, which he pushed to make more reliant on state test scores last year. (A governor-appointed task force suggested a moratorium on the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations, and the Board of Regents quickly passed an emergency regulation to do just that.)

If that has persuaded Cuomo to back away from public school policy and leave it to the Regents, that would please some observers.

“We see now what happens when politicians change those policies on a whim,” David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, said about last year.

That’s not to say that advocates expect no mention of public schools. Cuomo has already unveiled plans to use $100 million to turn failing schools into community schools, which provide non-academic services like healthcare and counseling to students. Improving “failing” schools will help keep students out of prison, Cuomo said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is a big supporter of community schools. The city has pledged to turn all of the schools in its “Renewal” turnaround program into community schools, and the city is expanding the model to more non-Renewal schools this year.

Others are holding their breath to see if Cuomo will mention any hot-button issues like teacher evaluations or state tests. Some predict that he will at least address the task force’s recommendations to overhaul the Common Core learning standards.

Last year, the governor’s agenda was dominated by education. In addition to revamping teacher evaluations and changing the way the state dealt with struggling schools, he proposed raising the charter-school cap and changes to how teachers earn tenure.

Whatever Cuomo says on Wednesday, it would take a lot to top the education news from last year’s State of the State.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like that in the time that I’ve been involved in education,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.