Andrew Cuomo has lost my vote — and if you are a teacher, a parent of a public school child or a citizen who sees schools as a vital component of our civil society, he should lose your vote too. He has been as abusive towards our public schools and the people who work in them as have Republican governors such as Scott Walker and Chris Christie, only without the national spotlight aimed at his policies. My conservative friends will probably suggest this has to do with media bias, and I won’t deny some possibility of that. However, a simpler explanation is that Governor Cuomo, unlike Governors Walker and Christie, has done little to highlight his conflicts with unionized teachers — it would do him little good with his core constituencies at home or nationally to do so.
Regardless, he has been a net negative for schools and teachers although you would not have guessed it reading his inaugural address in 2011. That speech had no mention of education or teachers and the only mention of school was a personal anecdote. The same speech mentioned taxes or taxpayers seven times, budget three times and the deficit eight times in one short paragraph, claiming there was a deficit of trust and competence as well as a budgetary one.
It has become clear since then that even if he did not mention education in his address, he had education in his sights and it wasn’t to make sure school districts had the funds they need to guarantee educational opportunity for all. One of the governor’s early achievements was a cap on property taxes that may have helped many home owners but has also left many school districts scrambling for funds. At the same time, Albany continued the “gap elimination adjustment” which became permanent in the 2011-2012 budget year. In the GEA, Albany allocates school aid and then uses a formula to take it away…or even increases the amount of money removed from school aid if the state projects a shortfall in revenue. Essentially, this is a formula that allows the legislature and the governor to announce a school aid budget and then to trim it when nobody is looking. According to the New York State School Boards association, the GEA has cost New York districts an average of $3.1 million dollars per year each year since 2010. 64% of districts have cut personnel, 53% have increased class sizes and 36% have reduced or eliminated extracurricular activities.
None of this is good for the children of New York, but it certainly helps Governor Cuomo keep from ever considering higher taxes. By the way, when you search the New York Times for “gap elimination adjustment” this is what comes up. Too obscure for even the Times’ New York reporting, you have to go to local and regional papers to find comprehensive coverage.
While finding ways to trim the money available locally and at the state level, the Governor has also aggressively pursued state pension reform. This is hardly unique to New York, but the demands to reform how career teachers retire comes at a time when teachers are being asked to do more than ever before…with less in the present and promises of less in the future. Governor Cuomo is solidly behind the current reform environment which means the state is not only implementing the Common Core State Standards, but also the state is implementing test score driven evaluation of teachers. While recent statements from the governor indicate a willingness to delay or reweight the degree to which student test scores will impact both student promotion and teacher evaluation, Commissioner John King was unambiguous that Albany believes it is on the right path for schools and will plow ahead. Plowing ahead means teachers with larger class sizes and fewer support personnel having to quickly implement a new and complicated set of curriculum standards in all grades simultaneously and simultaneously having to face their retention and tenure decisions being based upon the result of tests that have resulted in dramatic declines across the board.
All of this in a budget environment where NYC parents are being asked to fund raise so schools can hire elementary reading specialists. Schools lucky enough to have parents who are wealthy and connected maintain essential services. Other schools? Well, at least Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have to raise anyone’s taxes.
Balancing the budget on the backs of school children and public employees is unpleasant enough on its own, but Governor Cuomo’s behavior during the recent public battle between charter school magnate Eva Moskowitz and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was beyond the pale. The narrative should be familiar to New York residents. In the waning days of his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hastily granted a number of new colocations for charter schools in the city, including either new or newly expanded sites for Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain. Mayor de Blasio granted most of these colocations, where a charter operator is allowed to take over space in an existing public school building without paying rent to the city. Charter school advocates claim that paying for their space would put charters at a disadvantage compared to existing public schools, which they claim to be. But Moskowitz herself sued the state of New York to prevent the Comptroller from auditing and succeeded in having a law struck down that granted the Comptroller that authority. Her argument? Her schools are not a “unit of the state”. Ponder that: her schools accept public funds and demand space in public school buildings without rent, but the state’s top financial officer has no authority to examine her books. And she sued to make it that way.
Moskowitz stormed to Albany with her students claiming that the new mayor has declared war on her, but many of her claims fail to stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Among the most damning highlights is that by halting one of the colocations, Mayor de Blasio was trying to prevent one third of the severely disabled students in one building from being displaced and sent all over the city. Moskowitz likes to make lofty claims for her schools’ accomplishments drawing from a population that she alleges is among the city’s neediest. Sadly, these claims are heavily embellished as well. While Success Academy test scores are indeed high, there is no metric that makes Success Academy 4 the “highest performing school in the state,” and even though admission to charter schools is by lottery, remaining there is not guaranteed — and Moskowitz’s schools have exceptionally high attrition rates, especially among students who do not test well. Diane Ravitch of NYU and Avi Blaustein note:
In just four years Harlem Success Academy 4 has lost over 21 percent of its students. The pattern of students leaving is not random. Students with low test scores, English Language Learners, and special education students are most likely to disappear from the school’s roster. Large numbers of students disappear beginning in 3rd grade, but not in the earlier grades. No natural pattern of student mobility can explain the sudden disappearance of students at the grade when state testing just happens to begin.
Given these issues, it was disturbing enough to watch Governor Cuomo rush to Moskowitz’s side during her “Save Eva” rally in Albany on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was rallying for support of a universal prekindergarten proposal for New York City. But what has come out since then is simply inexcusable. Not only did Cuomo show up to stand by Moskowitz, he actively participated in making the rally happen, and the result of that public pressure and multimillion dollar ad blitz got us a New York state budget that expressly forbids charging charter school rent in public schools and forces the city to pay charter schools’ rents if they cannot colocate.
The fact is that Eva Mokowitz has very wealthy friends. The NY Times article makes clear that Governor Cuomo relies on campaign donations from Wall Street patrons of charter schools who helped fund the advertising backlash against Mayor de Blasio:
A lot was riding on the debate for Mr. Cuomo. A number of his largest financial backers, some of the biggest names on Wall Street, also happened to be staunch supporters of charter schools. According to campaign finance records, Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from charter school supporters, including William A. Ackman, Carl C. Icahn, Bruce Kovner and Daniel Nir.
Kenneth G. Langone, a founder of Home Depot who sits on a prominent charter school board, gave $50,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign last year. He said that when the governor asked him to lead a group of Republicans supporting his re-election, he agreed because of Mr. Cuomo’s support for charter schools.
Campaign filings show that the governor’s re-election campaign has collected over $400,000 in donations from wealthy donors who are also supporters of the Success Academy chain, including $65,000 directly from Moskowitz’s own political action committee. Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher, Ph.D. in statistics and education blogger, has extensively examined Success Academy tax documents with illuminating results, including that the IRS contact reported for Harlem Success Academy is Luxor Capital Group.
I don’t pretend to know why Wall Street big money is so invested in charter schools. Perhaps they sincerely believe that competition from privately run charter schools that their own children will never attend is a “secret sauce” to improving universal education in this country. Maybe they see charters as an effective tool against one of the last largely unionized work forces in America. Perhaps expanding charters is seen as a key factor in setting up education as a massive data collection enterprise where entrepreneurs can turn data into profitable technology products. It could be any number of factors, but one thing is certain: those factors are not being debated in public as part of the exercise of democratic control of public education. It is almost entirely privately debated for private purposes.
And that is why Andrew Cuomo cannot have my vote. He has made it very clear that he is not for public schools, public school teachers or public school students. Those people have been continuously squeezed by local revenue roadblocks and state revenue take backs at a time when they have had to do more and more for higher and higher stakes.
He is, however, very much for what hedge fund campaign donors are for. Those people have not been asked for a cent more in taxes and have their pet projects enshrined in the state budget.
If you are a student in New York, a parent of a student in New York, or a teacher in New York, Andrew Cuomo is not your governor, and he does not deserve your vote.
ADDENDUM: There are reasons why hedge funds promote charter schools. They are, surprise, linked to profit.