January 22, 2012

IN CREATING the Race to the Top program, which directed new federal dollars to education, federal officials vowed that they would yank money from any state that didn’t live up to its promises of school reform. There was a lot of skepticism about whether the threat would be taken seriously, let alone ever be carried out. But a new effort by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) to force an overhaul of how teachers are evaluated should dispel some of those doubts.

Warned by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that New York’s laggard efforts to reform teacher evaluations could cause it to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education funding, Mr. Cuomo has adopted those same carrot-and-stick tactics in an attempt to drive change. Under terms of the budget he unveiled last week, school districts that don’t improve teacher evaluations by Jan. 17, 2013, risk losing a share of the 4 percent statewide increase in education funding. “No evaluation, no money, period,” Mr. Cuomo said.

He was equally clear about his exasperation with the disagreements among school districts, unions and the New York State Education Department that created the stalemate over evaluations. Teachers went to court to limit the use of state student test data in evaluations, and New York City has been battling with its union over an appeals process. Mr. Cuomo gave the parties an ultimatum: Resolve these differences, or he will devise his own plan, using his considerable budget authority to impose it.

No details were forthcoming on what the governor might have in mind, so it’s hard to judge just how far he is willing to go in making teachers accountable for their performance. Will he insist that at least 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on measurable student work? Will there be real and timely consequences for educators who regularly are judged to be ineffective?

What’s been encouraging is Mr. Cuomo’s willingness — refreshing for a member of the Democratic Party, where teachers unions are a potent force — to challenge these very same interests. He called out the State Assembly for engineering teacher evaluation legislation in 2010 that was destined to fail and “protected the teachers union at the expense of the students.” In recent remarks commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Cuomo spoke of his increasing intolerance for a school system that regularly fails so many of its students. “Our schools are not an employment program,” he said, according to a report in the New York Times.

Mr. Cuomo has proven to be particularly adept at getting his agenda implemented; he enjoys such strong popular support that he’s being discussed as a future presidential candidate. That he has now set his sights on shaking up an educational bureaucracy that is better at spending money than serving children should be applauded.