Cuomo to our schools: “Drop dead”

April 2, 2015

Marilena Marchetti reports on the fight to defend public education in New York, and the challenges it faces now that the governor's reactionary proposals have passed.

IT'S SAFE to say the tiny minority of 1 Percenters who will be enjoying the Yacht Tax Credit established in this year's New York state budget didn't have to organize a single picket, orchestrate a Twitter storm or launch a statewide call-in campaign to lawmakers.

But tens of thousands of working class parents, teachers and students who went to rallies and called the state capital to try to defend their public schools have been ignored by their "representatives" in Albany.

On March 29, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders of the Republican-led state Senate and Democratic-led State Assembly agreed on a budget bill that includes multiple poison pills for public education. The new law will accelerate the process of taking children's education away from teachers and giving it to testing and curriculum corporations--unless New Yorkers can take the movement they've been building to even greater heights.

Cuomo declared war on public education during his run for re-election late last year when he promised to "break what is, in essence, one of the only remaining public monopolies--and that's what this is, it's a public monopoly."

New York teachers rally to protect public schools
New York teachers rally to protect public schools (Marilena Marchetti | SW)

Making good on that promise in January, Cuomo unveiled a plan that read like worst-of-the-worst list of education "reforms": increasing the weight of standardized test scores in evaluating teachers, expanding the cap on charter schools, making tenure more difficult to attain, a punitive approach to struggling schools that would override labor agreements, more red tape around teacher training programs, and an emphasis on bureaucratic control of school boards.

Nowhere to be found in Cuomo's proposals were evidence-based measures that are known to improve education outcomes like smaller class sizes, a fully funded, rich and well-rounded curriculum and access to quality wraparound services.

Writing for the Nation, George Joseph exposed how Cuomo's plan reflected his deep and long-term commitment to fulfilling the wishes of nine hedge-fund billionaires who want a piece of the public education pie. Inevitably, such flagrant neglect of what education justice advocates, parents and teachers want created a backlash.

On March 12, over 300 New York City schools responded to a call by an education justice parent-led coalition to stand up against Cuomo. As Socialist Worker reported, "The 'Protect Our Schools' action is the most expansive school organizing effort in recent memory in New York, and demonstrated the widespread anger at Cuomo's endless efforts to weaken public schools."

School communities built enough momentum through their organizing efforts to compel the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to endorse the day of action and push it to mobilize for a citywide action for March 28 outside of Cuomo's Manhattan offices.

THE THOUSANDS-strong rally on March 28 brought together parents and teachers, along with community members from every borough, Long Island and upstate.

Amy Weintraub from PS 107 in Brooklyn, along with dozens of other parents, wore a bright green t-shirt with the simple phrase "Public School Parent" blazoned across it. "We don't want Cuomo to think this is merely a union issue or a teacher issue," she explained. "This is also an educational issue that effects our children and that's why parents are upset."

Alexandra Alves, a teacher and member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the opposition caucus in the UFT, talked about how after the March 12 day of action, Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever dismissively referred to the thousands of participating parents, students and teachers as "special interests."

"We want to build a coalition and build enormous pushback if the budget does go through," Alves said. "It's not just about one school. We're not an interest group. Children--that's our interest. Students, the schools, the public education system--that's our interest."

A teacher from a neighboring school added, "If the budget goes through, one option that we encourage is the right for parents and students to opt out of testing. If entire schools just didn't do it, that can send a really strong message."

"One of the things that's been really amazing about the work that we've done is it has brought together teachers, students, parents, community members and administrators. All of us are working together because [Cuomo's proposals are] trying to rip apart the school community, the stakeholders."

The heightened mood of determined resistance on March 28 corroborated a recent Quinnipiac University poll that found 63 percent of voters disproved of Cuomo's stance on education with 28 approving, and 55 percent trusted teachers union to improve education as opposed to 28 percent who trusted Cuomo.

JESSICA HARVEY, a teacher at PS 3 in Manhattan, was wearing a red cardboard stop sign around her neck with the words "stop blaming teachers." "I'm here because I don't like the way governor Cuomo has added legislation into the budget that I think is anti-teacher and anti-union and is definitely not good for the children of New York City," she said.

"Funding our schools fairly would be good for our children. Having assessments that inform teaching instead of assessments that penalize students and teachers. Our school is a community we work together all the time so we are working to get the best for our kids. My main concern is the result of the budget will be a narrowing of the curriculum."

One Spanish-speaking mother who represented Sunset Park in Brooklyn with a crew of teachers, children and parents, said, "I'm here because our schools are very overcrowded, and we need help for our community."

As the deadline to pass a new budget went down to the wire, teachers and parents were scrambling to make sense of different information trickling in. UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued a press release on March 29 proclaiming victory:

The hedge-fund billionaires and Governor Cuomo haven't gotten their way. The Legislature today, led by the Assembly, reached an agreement on a package of education proposals that will immediately increase state aid, provided that teachers are evaluated on more than a single student test score and ensure local oversight of struggling schools.

The day after Mulgrew issued a statement to effectively demobilize his members, Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, indicated it was too soon to determine the impact of the fine print details in the budget, and that pressure on Cuomo needed to be maintained. She encouraged parents to opt out of tests and assured supporters that NYSUT would continue to explore the strategy.

Meanwhile, the education justice advocacy group Class Size Matters put out a call urging people to keep pressuring legislators by demanding that they "vote NO on any budget that ties education aid to teacher evaluation, and teacher evaluation to test scores."

Tragically, that's exactly what didn't happen. A paltry handful of Democratic legislators voted against the bill, while a majority voted to enact it, despite serious concerns with some of the worst attacks on teachers and teaching.

THE FULL impact of the budget will be felt soon enough, but suffice it to say it is a major blow to public education. School funding is tied to teacher evaluations, which in turn must be tied more stringently to standardized test scores.

As public school principal Liz Philips stated at the March 28 rally representing the Principals Union:

It's ironic that a year ago the governor said state tests could not be used for high-stakes decisions for children [grade promotion and high school entrance], and now he is proposing that they be more high-stakes than ever for teachers. But of course, making tests high-stakes for teachers makes them high-stakes for children. Schools narrow their curriculum, they do test prep at the expense of a rigorous thinking curriculum, and there's no doubt that this happens more in our struggling schools than in other schools, so it will widen the achievement gap.

According to a Capital New York report, the budget mandates that school districts "must negotiate the optional components of the evaluations with their local unions, submit their plans and obtain state approval by November 15, or they will lose an increase in state aid."

Teachers will now receive ratings of "ineffective," "developing," "effective" and "highly effective" based on two measures alone: student rates of improvement on standardized test scores and observations. Effectively, standardized test scores will factor more heavily in teacher ratings, even though there is no prescribed ratio of the weight of high-stakes tests.

In fact, the language of the bill ensures that standardized test results could account for 100 percent of a teacher's rating because if student test scores on both the mandated and optional exam result in a rating of "ineffective," the teacher must receive a rating of "ineffective" overall. They can't receive a higher rating based on observations, and lesson plans, student portfolios (in most cases), and student and parent feedback surveys can no longer be considered in a composite rating.

For teachers working in neglected and deprived communities where racist testing results are predictably lower, Cuomo's original proposal of a 50 percent weight would actually have been better than what is now the rule.

AMONG THE other negative features of the new law, teacher tenure has been lengthened from three to four years and tied to student test scores, and principals and teachers may be charged with "incompetence" and face termination based on their student's performance on high-stakes testing.

So-called "failing schools" and "persistently failing" schools will be subject to intervention that effectively dismantles school communities and turns them over to charter operators.

While the cap on charters was not officially expanded, time will tell if the stringent threats of turnaround that "failing schools" will face will be used as a work-around. Tougher requirements for entering teacher-training programs were authorized, along with new renewal requirements for those who already hold teacher certifications.

Over the past year, the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired millions of people by challenging the notion that oppressed people are to blame for their oppression. Andrew Cuomo's education bill does just that to public school teachers, students and parents.

As Pamela Jackson, who works with special education students at PS 291 in the Bronx, described the new law: "The budget negatively impacts my students because it doesn't provide resources that can actually help them. They need more services and educational materials and opportunities that are aimed at their level. The money we will spend on testing and test prep does nothing for them. It's a waste."

The March 28 rally was a step forward in the fight to defend public education, but it will take much more to beat Cuomo back. The stakes are high for us, but so are the potential profits for the privatizers in the elite class that Cuomo truly works for.

Now that the budget has passed, attention will turn to the movement to opt out of the state tests. At the rally, Jia Lee, a parent, special education teacher and member of MORE and the anti-testing groupChange the Stakes spoke from the podium about the need to resist Cuomo's agenda:

As a public school parent and a teacher, I am a mandated reporter, and I report you Governor Cuomo! You will be held accountable to us, the parents! I am concerned that there is zero regulation over the testing industry that is being used to evaluate our students and our teachers and our public schools. There is a way. We hold the power in our hands. You must choose to refuse the test! By choosing to refuse you will make your voices loud and clear. Choose to refuse!

Further Reading

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