state of the state of the state

State of the State to offer look at Cuomo’s aggressive ed agenda

After hinting for months that he will pursue aggressive changes to state education policy this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will offer the first real glimpse of his agenda on Wednesday.

Cuomo has released few details about his plans to address K-12 education issues in his State of the State address, which he will deliver Wednesday in Albany. But he is likely to focus on overhauling teacher evaluations and termination rules and dealing with the state’s lowest-performing schools, items the governor said on Tuesday were at the top of his education agenda.

“The single most important function that the state performs is education funding and education regulation,” Cuomo said after an unrelated speech. “And it probably has been the single greatest failure of this state in many ways.”

His pointed remarks, along with letter sent to state education officials last month and other recent statements about his desire to dismantle the public-education “monopoly,” suggest Cuomo is prepared to dive further into divisive policy debates that have made him a target of the city and state teachers unions.

What makes this year’s speech feel more significant, observers say, is that Cuomo has made it clear that a wide variety of policy issues are on the table. In December, a top aide’s letter to Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch asked for her feedback on issues ranging from teacher evaluations to the termination process for teachers guilty of misconduct. The letter also hinted at Cuomo’s interest in seeking more power over the Board of Regents, a 260-year-old body that sets education policy in New York state; lifting the state’s charter-school cap; and developing a way to take over schools that chronically underperform.

“I think the governor has been clear that he is not going to just be tinkering around the edges,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “He’s going to be looking for fundamental change.”

While Cuomo has called for closing low-performing schools in the past, he’s never pushed the legislature to intervene. On Tuesday, he stopped short of calling for such a takeover measure  but described the state’s struggling schools in dire — and specific — terms.

“We have about 178 failing schools,” Cuomo said, referring to the schools the state has designated as “priority” for improvement, 91 of which are in New York City. “About half have been failing for over 10 years.”

“You want to talk about a damning commentary?” he added. “250,000 students went through failing schools and we did nothing.”

For now, districts themselves hold most of the power when it comes to struggling schools. The State Education Department requires districts to submit school turnaround plans, but many of those schools have gone years without improving without significant state response.

But Cuomo’s legislative agenda hasn’t always been as aggressive as his tone when talking about the state’s public education system. In his 2012 State of the State speech, Cuomo appointed himself “the lobbyist for students,” but his main education-related announcement that year was to convene an education reform commission, for example.

In other years, Cuomo used the speech to draw attention to big ideas through relatively small competitive grant programs. In 2011, the grants were designed for districts that saved costs and raised student achievement; in 2013 and 2014, Cuomo proposed grants for merit pay, extended learning time, community schools, and pre-kindergarten.

The State of the State speech also sets up the governor’s priorities in upcoming negotiations with the state legislature, though it’s not always an accurate predictor of what emerges in at the end of the process. Last year, Cuomo didn’t mention charter schools in his State of the State speech, but ended up passing a law that gave New York City charter schools facilities funding after advocates launched an all-out lobbying campaign.

Cuomo’s agenda is sure to prompt fierce opposition from the city and state’s teachers unions.  Teachers and their allies in the legislature are insisting that any budget proposal include large increases in formula-based funding that prioritizes low-income school districts.

On Tuesday, those same groups followed up on a rally in the Capitol last week calling on Cuomo to increase education funding by $2.2 billion, a sum even more than what the Board of Regents has proposed.

“Investing more in public education – and doing so fairly and equitably – must be a high priority this legislative session,” New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”