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Senate incumbents face the consequences of the teacher evaluations fight

Zach Williams
City & State

An effort to change how student test scores factor into performance evaluations for public school teachers seemed to be a done deal just two months ago, but the failure of the state Senate to pass a bill in the waning days of the legislative session is coming back to haunt incumbents in both parties.

New York State United Teachers has promised a “tremendous show of force” against the five Democrats who voted for a Republican bill that tied the proposed changes to evaluations to more funding for charter schools. The union did not endorse any Democrat who voted for the bill, and has also poured money into the campaign of Jim Gaughran, a Democrat who is challenging Republican state Sen. Carl Marcellino of Long Island in the upcoming election.

NYSUT’s $11,000 contribution to Gaughran through its political action committee is the largest contribution he’s received and came just a few weeks after Marcellino voted for a bill proposed by state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in lieu of Marcellino’s own bill, which focused on delinking test scores from teacher evaluations and had appeared to be on a path to passing the state Legislature just weeks before. The Assembly passed a similar bill and Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared ready to sign the changes into law.

“The fact that this bill was not even brought up for a vote by the Senate Republican majority is ridiculous,” state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic leader, said in an email. “Clearly the only way this legislation will be passed into law is by having new leadership in the State Senate, and a functional Democratic majority.”

Support for Flanagan’s bill was a deal-breaker between the union and former state Senate Independent Democratic Conference members Jeff Klein, Diane Savino and David Valesky, as well as state Sen. Kevin Parker, a mainline Democrat, according to union leader Andrew Pallotta. Pallotta said in a telephone interview that there are plans to deploy union members to make phone calls and knock on doors to battle against their re-elections – a notable setback for the four state senators who received the union’s backing two years ago.

“It just stands out as something that will weigh heavily on them,” Pallotta said. “When the union gets motivated, look out.”

State Sen. Simcha Felder, who also voted for Flanagan’s bill, was not endorsed by the union in 2016 nor this year. Felder is nominally a Democrat, but has caucused with the Republicans since he took office.

NYSUT, which represents K-12 teachers as well as SUNY and CUNY faculty, has pushed for years to create an evaluation system for teachers that would not rely on tests. Student performance on standardized tests were incorporated into the teacher assessment system in 2010. Their importance increased five years later per new legislation, but a backlash led by NYSUT resulted in a five-year moratorium on using student test performance in evaluations. Opposition to standardized tests more generally had also catalyzed opposition among parents across the country. Hundreds of thousands of students eventually opted out of taking tests based on the controversial Common Core educational standards in protest.