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N.Y.'s Cuomo Optimistic on Teacher Evaluation Guidelines

New York is fast approaching the zero hour for reaching an agreement on highly contentious teacher-evalution regulations, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday said he's guardedly optimistic that a deal can be struck.

Cuomo has set deadline of Thursday for a state teachers' union and state officials to work out an agreement over how educators should be evaluated.

If they can't, the governor, a Democrat, has warned he will amend a state budget proposal to include an evaluation system of his own design.

Speaking at a meeting of his cabinet on Tuesday, Cuomo told reporters that both sides have incentives to press hard for a deal, which makes him "optimistic they're going to get it done."

New York's teacher evaluation system was approved by lawmakers in 2010, as part of an ultimately successful effort to win $700 million through the federal Race to the Top competition.

But when state officials wrote regulations designed to implement the law, they drew strong objections from the New York State United Teachers union, which argued that the rules overstepped the parameters of the law and sued to block them. The union argued that the regulations went far beyond the law's intent in allowing too much of an evaluation to be based on students' standardized test scores—essentially accusing the state of going back on the deal. A judge largely agreed, leaving the two sides deadlocked.

Cuomo has warned that the impasse has put the state's Race to the Top award in peril. And it appears to have ruptured the relative cooperation between the union, the state, and lawmakers that was evident in the passage of the original law.

On Tuesday, Cuomo and Larry Schwartz, the secretary to the governor, sounded generally upbeat that the NYSUT and state officials were working toward an agreement.

Cuomo said he sees "two discrete steps" the state needs to take on teacher evaluation.

First, the state has to approve the basic teacher-evalution template. Once that occurs, he's given local school districts a year to reach their own agreements to create teacher evaluation systems, which would have to be collectively bargained with local unions, based on the state's overall template. (Some of those districts, most notably New York City, are having a much tougher time than others in reaching accords with unions, Cuomo and Schwartz acknowledged.)

The governor has offered those local districts a carrot to reach a deal—or a stick, depending on your point of view. He's said that districts will only be eligible for the 4 percent increases in state aid that he's proposed in his $132.5 billion budget if they can reach local deals on evaluations. New York City, for instance, stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, he said, if they fall short of an accord.

"District by district...I think you're going to see that [financial pressure] incentivize cooperation on both sides, management and labor," he predicted.

The governor also suggested that if New York can reach a statewide deal on teacher evaluation, it would establish a model for states around the country.

Changing how teachers are evaluated is "probably the greatest reform in education," Cuomo said. "States have been working on it, but no state has really come up with a really good system yet and implemented it, and New York would actually be on the cusp of that."

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