Three education issues to listen for during Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo’s only live debate

Cynthia Nixon traces her decision to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo all the way back to her days as a school-funding advocate.

Now, more than a decade after joining that fight, the actress and education advocate will have a chance to press Cuomo on his record and present her own vision during the campaign’s sole debate Wednesday night.

Cuomo’s education priorities have shifted dramatically since he first took office. Once a champion for charter schools and tougher teacher evaluation standards, he has lately made amends with teacher unions and backed away from his early reform efforts.

Education will have to contend with many other issues during the debate. But it could also be revealing for voters who care about what happens in the state’s schools: Will Nixon, who once served as a spokeswoman for the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, try to capitalize on Cuomo’s shifting priorities? And how will Cuomo use his education record to bolster his case that he should remain in office for another four years?

Here are three things to listen for.

How much money should schools get from the state?

This issue has been the main front for Nixon’s education campaign against Cuomo. Under his leadership, New York has increased its spending on schools by 35 percent since 2012. But Nixon, who first came to activism because of a landmark school funding lawsuit, says that’s not enough. Her education plan would allocate $7 billion more, with the goal of reducing class sizes and hiring more counselors and teachers. Will Cuomo pillory her proposal on TV when he knows that many New Yorkers do think schools would benefit from more money?

How should teachers be evaluated?

As lawmakers considered officially untying student test scores from teachers’ annual ratings this spring, Nixon quickly endorsed the change. That put Cuomo in a tough position: Should he stay quiet and risk losing endorsement by the state’s teachers unions, which are eager for such a change, or should he join her and back undoing a law he originally demanded? Cuomo ultimately split the difference, allowing lawmakers to move forward without officially endorsing an overhaul to the state’s teacher evaluation law.

The legislature then failed to act before the end of its session, leaving the issue open for further debate. In the end, the unions did not endorse Nixon, even though her positions more closely match their own — but they aren’t backing Cuomo, either. The debate could reveal how the pair talk about this issue now that there aren’t union endorsements to jockey over.

How should New York City high schools select students?

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a political firestorm this summer with a plan to admit more black and Hispanic students to the city’s elite but segregated specialized high schools. One element of the plan, nixing the exam that is now the sole factor for admissions, would require the legislature to act since the test is required by state law for at least three of the schools.

While any admissions changes would affect only a small number of students, how the candidates handle the issue could point to their general approach toward education equity. Nixon has signaled that she would sign legislation to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test, while Cuomo declined to endorse the proposal in June — suggesting it should be part of negotiations over mayoral control of schools, another issue facing the next governor. The debate could be a good time to press him on an issue that has captivated many New Yorkers.