May 31, 2012
With just weeks left in the legislative session, bills to shield teachers’ ratings from public scrutiny are still on the table in Albany. But no consensus has yet formed about exactly what that shield would look like — if one is constructed at all.
Albany lawmakers are hung up on one key issue that distinguishes at least three proposed versions of the legislation: Should parents be allowed access to teacher ratings?
Republican Senator Greg Ball and Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, both of Westchester, have proposed bills that say they should not.
“I just feel very strongly that this is a part of a teacher’s personal and confidential record and that the grades should be handled appropriately,” said Galef, whose bill has so far collected 24 co-sponsors.
Twenty lawmakers, including Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, a Democrat, have signed onto a third bill in the Assembly that would give parents limited access to evaluations. The bill would require parents to make a special request for the evaluations.
Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill, said the Assembly bills would eventually be whittled down into one.
“What we tried to do is put forward a variety of proposals that the governor would consider,” said Ellen Jaffee, who proposed the third bill. Jaffee said that Assembly lawmakers were considering a fourth version that would put a moratorium on releasing teacher evaluations until after statewide systems are implemented next year.
The differing versions reflect the unsteady agreement among politicians, advocates, union leaders and education officials that New York City’s release of performance rankings for 18,000 elementary and middle school teachers was not handled well. The reports, which were published by several New York City media organizations, quickly became front-page fodder for the city’s tabloids, which sought out the highest and lowest rated teachers. The city said that the ratings should not be taken as a complete picture of a teacher’s quality since it was only based on student growth in one category, test scores.
The lead sponsors on each bill are from upstate New York districts, although many of the lawmakers who have signed on as co-sponsors are from New York City.
The precedent of releasing information to the public was widely objected to by a broad base in February – Bill Gates and Michael Mulgrew were in agreement – prompting state officials into a conversation about a law to block the release in future years.
Ball proposed his bill on March 22, but even with a weeks-long head start, the bill has yet to garner any co-sponsors from his Senate colleagues. Mayor Bloomberg, a major donor to state senate campaigns, has been a staunch defender of releasing the performance data.
Unlike Bloomberg, Albany leadership has signaled that widespread release of the performance data would be imprudent, but they have also insisted that parental access to the data should be a priority in any legislation.
“Information and evaluation should be out there for parents to know,” Silver said in March. Cuomo used similar language when he was asked about it. “I believe in the case of teachers, the parents’ right to know outweighs the teachers’ right to privacy,” Cuomo said.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who has not taken a firm stand on the issue, did not respond to requests for comment.
And while Jaffee’s bill is the only one that so far leaves open an option for parents to view their teacher’s information, it comes on limited terms. According to the bill’s language, parents would have to file an official request through the Freedom of Information Law, a complicated procedure that does not yield an immediate result. Once the request is granted, the parents would not be allowed to obtain any documents. Instead, they would be able to view the ratings “at a private meeting with the building principal.” Plus, the law would give an out for districts that have qualms about the ratings: The superintendent and the state education chief would have to sign a document certifying that the district’s teacher evaluations are accurate.
Despite the restrictions, union officials are hoping that Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly leadership would see Jaffee’s bill as a compromise.
“Clearly, what we desire is total confidentiality, but there is a political reality and a parent’s right to know has to play into what legislation has the best possibility of passing, ” said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. “For a parent, it’s more than a right to know. It’s a right to know more about their own child.”
Lawmakers and state insiders said they remained optimistic that resolving the issue of teacher data reports are on Cuomo’s list of priorities for this session, which ends at the end of the month.