Albany 2017: What Can We Expect from the Governor, the Legislature and the Regents?

In a few weeks Donald Trump will put his hand on a bible and repeat the constitutional oath of office, a month or so later the Senate will confirm Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. Yes, she’s totally unqualified, is totally committed to vouchers, to charter schools and an enemy of public schools. Unfortunately the Senate has 52 Republicans and it is highly unlikely that three Republicans will vote against DeVos.

It is impossible to know how a Trump presidency will impact New York State: drastic cuts in federal entitlement programs, cuts in federal support of Medicaid, a range of possibilities that will adversely effect New York State finances are all possibilities.

With a dark cloud hovering   the Albany legislature convened today.

A coming attraction of the legislative session.

The Assembly and the Senate:

The New York State legislature is off and running, and very unhappy. The issue: the absence of a salary raise. The last raise was at a lame duck special session in December 1998; Governor Pataki offered a salary raise in exchange for the charter school law. Yes, that’s right, a simple “deal” that was supported by Democrats as well as Republicans. The legislature can only vote raises for the incoming legislators. Almost everyone gets reelected, in fact, they are voting raises for themselves.  Legislators will have had twenty years without  a raise; with the increasing turnover in the legislature most of the members have been elected since 1998.

Legislators are paid $79,500 plus per diems for days in Albany plus a stipend for serving as a chair of a committee ranging from $4,000 to $16,000 for the few top committees. The legislature convenes on January 4th, sessions will be held two days a week, increasing in time until the April 1 budget date, and, resume after the Easter-Passover break and adjourn in mid June.

The legislature has extremely low favorability ratings with the public.

Each member maintains an office in their district, with sufficient funding to pay for a small staff.

About 15,000 bills will be introduced in the Assembly, maybe 500 will become law.

The Assembly is led by Carl Heastie, the relatively new Speaker. The Democrats have an overwhelming majority in the 150 member Assembly. The Senate is more complicated, much more complicated. There are 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the 63-member Senate; however, five Democratic members broke away from the other Democrats and formed the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) led by Bronx Senator Jeff Klein. The IDC caucuses with the Republicans; John Flanagan, the majority leader of the Senate leads the Senate, although, he requires IDC acquiescence.

The Democratic Assembly members wanted a raise and were willing to give up outside income, the Republican Senate members wanted a raise and were unwilling to give up outside income. The Governor wanted a strict ethics package …. eventually … the talks faded.

Democratic Assembly members who were unhappy with the Governor, now despise him.

They hinted they would not attend the Governor’s State of the State address, the Governor changed the process, five separate addresses across the state with invited guests only. (I sent in my request for an invite – we’ll see)

The Governor:

Governor Cuomo rarely, very rarely gives press conferences; he strictly controls media access and the narrative.

On one hand he chose to attack teachers and their union, to support charter schools, to vindictively punish teachers for the widespread support of Zephyr Teachout, and, to reverse course, dump Merryl Tisch as leader of the Board of Regents as well as Tisch supporters on the Regents, support a moratorium on the use of testing to assess teachers, support substantial increases in state aid; if he hasn’t made 180 degree change in attitudes towards teachers its pretty close to it.

His adoption of the Sanders/Clinton “make colleges free” plan resulted in headlines in the national press.

Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign for reelection in 2018 is off and running with an eye on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2020.

Angry Democrats and/or Republicans could sidetrack an April 1 on time budget embarrassing the Governor.

Remember the political aphorism: when you toss a rock into a pool of feces you never know whose going to be splashed.

The Issues:

State revenues are down, Trump’s policies could reduce federal dollars to New York State or more likely shift budgetary responsibilities from the feds to the state.

With budgetary woes hovering can the state afford to begin to implement the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) judicial decision?

Will the state continue to increase state aid to school districts at the rate of the last few years?

If the legislature does not agree to an April 1 budget the Governor can opt to fund the state through the continuing resolution process, unwieldy,; however, Governor Patterson used the process to bypass the legislature.

The Cuomo apotheosis: The Governor is far more in sync with the current leadership of the Board of Regents. The December 2015 Cuomo Commission Task Force Report set out a roadmap and slowly the Regents are moving to implement the recommendations.

The elephant in the room are the over 200,000 opt out parents. The state tests later this spring will continue to be three days for English Language Arts (ELA) and three days for mathematics. The evolution to computer-based testing and the problems with lack of computer hardware and band width could lengthen the testing period. The Regents are in the midst of building a new accountability plan for the state could move from proficiency (a single score) to growth (a comparison of last year to this year), or, begin to experiment with alternatives, such as performance tasks, portfolios, that are referred to as authentic assessments.

The Regents have been flirting with a big question: high school diploma requirements.

Do the current high school diploma requirements prepare students for the world of work and post secondary education?

Should we revert to a lesser or specialized diploma for students with disabilities?

Should recent immigrants have to meet the same requirements as all other students?

Why are Career and Technical Education, (CTE) programs, formerly known as Vocational Education declining across most of the state?  Are state policies and regulations too complicated? antiquated? Can/Should the state directly intervene to create more CTE schools/programs?

Are we adequately preparing prospective teachers?  Why has the enrollment in college teacher preparation programs dropped so precipitously?  Can the state both uncomplicate and bring coherence to teacher preparation programs?

New York State leads the nation in the inequality of school funding. Richer, higher tax school districts spend  far more dollars per student than poorer, low tax districts. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. About 80% of education dollars come from local property taxes, state aid from Albany is distributed in a fairer manner; however the variation in per capita funding remains immense. Should the Regents propose a major revision in school funding?  A political land mine!!!

Will the Assembly, the Senate, the Governor and the Board of Regents dance together, or, will the dark clouds hovering over the nation’s capital move East?

A nineteenth century political wag wrote, “No one’s life, liberty or property is safe while the New York State legislature is in session.”

Maybe a little too pessimistic,  the agenda is full, and I am cautiously hopeful.

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