Op-ed: Why I voted against the education budget


As a former teacher and as the ranking member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, it was with great reluctance that I voted ‘no’ on the policies put forth by Gov. Cuomo in the budget-related education bills. While Gov. Cuomo has been a leader on a number of progressive policies, such as the SAFE Act, same-sex marriage and universal pre-K, I was disappointed by the largely regressive policies that were present in the budget as related to education.

The 2015-2016 budget that was finalized on April 1 included a $1.6 billion spending increase for education, with $1.33 billion earmarked for school aid. Though this was significantly lower than the $2 billion in state aid that was requested by the State Education Department and that my Democratic colleagues and I fought for, it still brings education funding to its highest level ever.
Unfortunately, my colleagues in the Legislature and I were forced to choose between desperately needed school aid or passing a problematic teacher evaluation structure that could be harmful to the performance of both students and teachers for years to come. This ham-fisted strategy was designed to force legislators to approve the governor’s policy on teacher evaluations, which I believe relied far too heavily on testing to determine a teacher’s effectiveness.

The governor’s original proposal would have made student scores on state tests 50 percent of a teacher’s rating (which currently count for 20 percent) and reduce principal evaluations to 15 percent (now at 60 percent). The remaining 35 percent would be determined by observation from an independent evaluator.

Making student test scores half of a teacher’s evaluation is overly punitive to hardworking educators and to students who are now steered to learn how to test well, not necessarily how to succeed in college or careers.

Many years ago when I taught at Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica, I was assigned to teach math even though I was licensed in social studies. There was a shortage of qualified teachers for STEM subjects and I was the only teacher available who had completed the relevant math coursework. I had reservations about teaching outside of my license but I did what had to be done. Faced with the same situation today, I fear high-stakes testing would have discouraged me from teaching the class.

I agree that reforms must be made to our education system so that all teachers receive the support they need and all students receive the high-quality education they deserve. But I also believe that high-stakes testing is a wrongheaded strategy. Test scores should be a smaller portion of a teacher’s score and principal and peer evaluations should carry more weight. I also agree with NYSUT that this plan unfairly strains the collective bargaining rights of teachers in their annual performance review.

Making teachers the enemy will not improve education. In fact, I fear it will only increase animosity in a debate that instead needs more collaboration and understanding between teachers, students and parents.

State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky represents the 16th Senatorial District covering parts of many neighborhoods in central Queens.