ALBANY, N.Y. — Teacher evaluations will be kept secret from most taxpayers after state lawmaker's overwhelmingly passed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bill Thursday, giving a major victory to teachers unions, who opposed wider disclosure of the appraisals.
Under Cuomo's bill, a teacher's evaluation will only be released to the parents and guardians of students in his or her class. Even armed with a poor rating, parents and guardians would find it difficult to remove their child from the class, supporters and opponents of the bill agreed. In addition, parents and guardians would not have access to evaluations of teachers outside their child's classroom, which would otherwise enable them to "shop" for a better teacher the following year.
Without the bill, all evaluations for teachers and principals would be public, based on a court decision.
"The intention of this bill is to avoid media exploitation," said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, a Rockland County Democrat who sponsored the bill. She explained the state committed to evaluations and some disclosure when it applied for and accepted more than $700 million in federal funds last year under the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition to improve instruction.
She said that under a recent court decision forced by a New York Post lawsuit, teacher evaluations would start to be available beginning Aug. 15 to anyone under the Freedom of Information Act unless Cuomo's bill was enacted.
Teachers and their politically powerful unions were outraged at the release of New York City teacher evaluations in articles that compared the effectiveness of schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had argued full disclosure was the fastest and most effective way to improve instruction and motivate teachers.
Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, a Queens Democrat, said he saw no reason to release the evaluations "except to sell newspapers."
"What sells newspapers better than a little controversy?" he asked in the two-hour floor debate. "How will the student be served by the newspapers having this information?"
The Senate passed the measure 58-1 while the Assembly passed it 118-17. But many of those in support said they were cornered into voting for a bill from Cuomo because the alternative — full disclosure — would be worse for teachers.
"It just seems like we have the torches and the pitchforks out and we're going after teachers," said Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Greene County Republican and husband of a teacher. "I think in hindsight we should have told the feds to keep the $700 million ... we're branding these teachers."
Supporters defended the bill as part of improving education, which Cuomo said costs New York more than most states while getting only middle-range results.
"I believe the shakeup of education in New York state is a good thing and long overdue," said Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, a Suffolk County Republican. "As a property tax payer on Long Island, I am tired of the shakedown I experience each and every year from the education system."
Other also argued for the accountability of disclosure.
"Data is now a fact of our lives," said Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat. "And, yes, let's not sell our parents short: They have a right to know."
"I believe in disclosure, I want accountability," said Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat. "My first, second and third priority are the children of New York City."
Bloomberg said he understood this was a tough issue, but a critical one.
"I believe that parents have a right to full disclosure when it comes to information about their child's education, and I am disappointed that this bill falls short of that goal," Blooomberg said. "Parents need information to make good decisions about their children's schools."
The state's biggest union called it a win for teacher privacy.
"The governor and Legislature did the right thing by stopping the media from distorting and disseminating evaluation results," said Richard Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers union. "This bill accomplishes that goal and preserves the purpose of evaluations, which is to provide opportunity for continued growth and improvement."
"I believe it strikes the right balance between protecting teacher privacy and a parent's right to know," Cuomo said.
The Senate didn't agree to bring the measure to a vote until Thursday morning, the final day of the 2012 session.
"It's a compromise between a parent's right to know and some form of confidentiality," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican. "I'm sure it's going to be reviewed in the future," Skelos said.
"I have no intention of revisiting the bill in six months or a year," Cuomo said hours later, with Skelos at his side at a news conference.