Andrew Cuomo’s war on schools

January 21, 2015

To New York's Democratic governor, public schools aren't a resource to be treasured, but a "monopoly" that needs to be dismantled, writes Danny Katch.

IMAGINE FOR a moment that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was a Republican, not a Democrat.

What would be the public reaction if a Republican vowed to break up public education because it was an unfair "monopoly"?

Picture a Republican governor who wanted teachers to be fired based solely on student test scores--but who himself failed the state bar exam to become a lawyer four times, only to be made an assistant district attorney because his Daddy was governor.

Of course, this Republican would be widely mocked as New York's version of George W. Bush. But people wouldn't be laughing when he moved ahead with plans to tear down public education by allowing an unlimited number of charter schools and making it easier to fire teachers based on unreliable standardized testing.

Imagine a Republican governor doing all this to public schools at the same time as he was violating a court order to provide enough funding so students were guaranteed their constitutional right to a decent education--and was instead using the money to provide tax breaks for businesses. If that were the case, the Koch brothers might have to step aside and make room for a new Public Enemy Number One for liberals.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo is doing all of the above, and the fact that he belongs to the Democratic Party doesn't make any of his attacks less real or the crisis facing New York teachers, students and parents less urgent.

Cuomo is gearing up this spring to permanently weaken the structures of public education, and he's backed up by a collection of charter school demagogues, curriculum and test prep corporations, and billionaire investors hoping to create some monopolies of their own.

It's going to take a major movement, involving tens of thousands of people who care about saving our schools, to take them on.

CUOMO AND state Board of Regents chair Merryl Tisch--of the billionaire Tisch family--are bringing a long wish list of right-wing education reforms to the state legislature this spring, including the introduction of merit pay for teachers and weakening rules that protect their jobs (otherwise known as tenure.)

The top two items on Cuomo's agenda are to raise or eliminate limits on the number of charter schools in the state and to change the teacher evaluation system to one more based on standardized test scores.

"I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that's going to matter long-term," Cuomo told the New York Daily News last October. "To break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies--and that's what this is: it's a public monopoly." Cuomo went on to say that schools need "real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools."

Cuomo's comparison of public schools to a monopoly that needs to be broken up shocked many parents and teachers, but he was accurately summarizing the business mentality of what is known as the education "reform" movement: Reduce students to their test scores, reduce teaching to the raising of those test scores, and then replace schools that raise scores the least with privately run, non-union charter schools.

This gang is "reforming" schools the same way that Walmart has reformed the grocery industry--yet Cuomo casts himself as a freedom fighter trying to take down an oppressive monopoly.

PUBLIC EDUCATION isn't a monopoly, of course. People can open as many private and religious schools as they want with their own money. What Cuomo thinks is monopolistic about public schools is actually one of the few remaining elements of democracy in this country: In exchange for receiving taxpayer dollars, schools are accountable to their communities through locally elected school boards that decide school policy.

Charter schools, on the other hand, take public money, but aren't bound to give parents or teachers input into the school or serve the entire community, including students with special needs and those struggling with disciplinary issues.

Now, if you want to talk about a monopoly that is threatening public education in New York, let's talk about Pearson, the giant educational materials corporation that has huge textbook and testing contracts with New York state, despite its long record of publishing delays and poorly designed test questions.

But Cuomo wants Pearson's tests to be the main criterion that determines if teachers get to keep their jobs. A few years ago, the governor pushed through a teacher evaluation system in which 20 percent of ratings were based on the standardized test scores of students--despite the arguments of experts that teachers have little impact on test scores compared to other factors like poverty.

Unfortunately for Cuomo, the remaining 80 percent of the evaluation process remained in the hands of school boards, whose members' children often attend the schools and who therefore know something that is obvious to everyone involved in education except those running it: The biggest teacher problem facing schools isn't getting teachers fired, but getting them to stay.

The best schools tend to be those with the most experienced teachers, but the profession is so unforgiving that almost half of all teachers quit within their first five years. On average, 15 percent of teachers move from or leave their school every year--the figure is 20 percent in poor districts.

So school boards in New York, recognizing the valuable work that teachers do and wanting them to stay and improve, have devised evaluation systems that result in only 1 percent of teachers getting ineffective ratings each year.

Rather than being pleased that cities and towns across the state seemed to be happy with their teachers, Cuomo was furious. He and Tisch have responded by proposing that 40 percent of evaluations now be based on test scores--and that much of the remaining 60 percent be determined not by local officials, and but by state officials in Albany.

In other words, Cuomo's plans to tie teachers evaluations to faulty test scores has been thwarted not by monopoly, but by democracy--in this case, locally elected school boards making decisions based on the best interests of their schools. Now the governor wants to take that democratic power away and have teachers evaluated by unelected bureaucrats they'll never meet--who also happen to work closely with a giant test-prep corporation.

OF COURSE, the elements of democracy that remain in the public education system being governed by local school boards doesn't fully live up ideals of real democracy. Public schools have always been racially segregated and starved of funding, and nowhere has that been the case more than in New York.

As a New York Times editorial put it, the "central crisis in New York education" is that the state has the most segregated schools in the country, and each year, poor school districts receive $5 billion less that what they require to give their students an adequate education.

That figure comes from a 2006 class action lawsuit won by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The state initially complied with the judge's order that Albany provide adequate funding for education--but it cut off the money when the recession hit in 2008.

Since then, the economy has gotten better, but Cuomo still refuses to comply with the court order on education funding. Instead, he directs billions of dollars each year into tax breaks for businesses, supposedly so they will create more jobs. (As if that same money going to public schools wouldn't create jobs for teachers and other education workers.)

According to education advocates, the state is shortchanging public schools in New York City and elsewhere by more than $2,000 per student every year--that money is desperately needed to pay for smaller class sizes, music, art, after-school programs and more.

But Cuomo has long insisted that the money isn't important. "Performance is the key to education," he lectured in an open letter to the Board of Regents Chair Merryl Tisch at the start of his term in 2011. "It's not about how much we spend, but the results that matter. As data show our education spending hasn't resulted in performance."

For some reason, Cuomo doesn't make the same claim about the businesses he wants to shower with tax breaks. Why not just keep their taxes and demand better "job-creating" performance from them?

Adding insult to injury, by refusing to comply with the lawsuit, Cuomo is aligning himself with an initial lower court ruling that infamously declared the state didn't have a constitutional obligation to provide children with anything more than an 8th grade education.

So even while Cuomo is pushing a Common Core curricula and testing regime that puts pressure on students to be "college-ready" starting in kindergarten--and blaming teachers if they're not--he won't even provide the resources for some of them to make it to high school.

SUPPORTERS OF public education are beginning to come together to challenge Cuomo's attacks.

On January 12, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) brought the Moral Monday protests made famous last year in North Carolina up north to Albany--with hundreds of students, teachers and activists flooding the Capitol building to demand adequate funding for schools across the state.

A few nights earlier, AQE worked with local parents' groups and elected officials in Queens to hold a town hall meeting that drew 100 people and got dozens of parents and teachers involved in planning future actions.

These activities are a good start, but protests will need to grow bigger if we are to fight confidently not just for funding, but for every aspect of public education: teachers' right to due process through tenure, communities' right to control their own schools, and students' right to be taught how to think and not just how to take a test.

Last year, tens of thousands of New York parents pressured Cuomo to back away from using Common Core tests to determine student promotion, by having their children opt out of taking the test. That showed Cuomo can be forced to back down in the face of a movement.

The potential to build this movement exists among parents and students, but especially among teachers, who have been the backbone of resistance to attacks on public education across the country, from the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building in 2011 to the Chicago teachers strike the following year.

To build that type of bold fight in New York, we'll have to recognize that it matters less whether the governor is a Republican or Democrat, than whether we have built the power to take on the business interests backing him.

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