Dear NYS Assembly Members: Did We Stutter?

Allies of public education in New York have had some hope that Assembly Democrats were getting the message and were preparing to truly challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appalling education agenda.  Speaker Carl Heastie and his colleagues released a proposal with $830 million more in school aid than the governor’s and with none of the strings attached to the aid that made the governor’s proposals so potentially damaging.  Gone were changes to teacher tenure and dismissal, increases in the state charter school cap, and increased authority for Albany to take over schools, all proposals the governor demands in return for raising school aid by $1 billion.  While the Assembly number is still far short of what is required to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that Albany has largely ignored since 2007, it was a push in the right direction.  Senate Democrats are reportedly casting their futures away from Governor Cuomo, and Assembly Democrats and Republicans are calling foul on the governor’s stated intention to shunt aside the Assembly if they do not give him exactly what he wants.  Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, having indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is still sniffing around Albany which cannot be comfortable for a governor who is the top beneficiary of hedge fund money in the state and who assembled half of his campaign cash from fewer that 350 donors.

Even better than the brewing dissatisfaction with Governor Cuomo among law makers, even law makers of his own party, is the evidence that voters are increasingly stacking up against the Governor’s education proposals.   A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that Governor Cuomo’s approval rating has fallen 8 points since December, leaving him with a 50% job approval rating.  More telling, however, was that the poll revealed only 28% of respondents approved of the governor’s education plans, and that 55% said they trusted the state teachers union more when it came to improving education in the Empire State.  71% disagreed with tying teacher compensation to student test scores, and 65% said teacher tenure should not be tied to standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo’s education proposals are so unpopular that his entire approval rating is being dragged down with voter dissatisfaction with those ideas.

Speaker Carl Heastie entered the infamous “three men in a room” negotiations where Albany’s power brokers convene to discuss what will actually be brought for a vote to the Assembly and Senate.  Governor Cuomo was there, as was Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos whose Republican conference won an outright majority in the 2014 election.  In a break with protocol, Senator Jeffrey Klein, whose 5 person independent Democratic conference previously gave Senator Skelos control of the Senate, was involved in the negotiations, infuriating Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who contends that if Senator Klein can be there representing 5 members, she should be there to represent 25. With an increasingly defiant membership and with clear evidence of popular agitation against the governor’s education proposals, observers wanted Speaker Heastie to face down Governor Cuomo.  Instead, sources with the Alliance for Quality Education noted that a hastily made statement on Wednesday spoke about a $1.4 billion “compromise” school aid increase, $400 million less than the Assembly’s proposal.

One cannot help but wonder if Governor Cuomo has the firstborn children of all Assembly members locked up in Azkaban or something like that.

With all due respect (and no small portion of dismay), I must exhort Speaker Heastie and his conference to realize that this is not a time for compromise with Governor Cuomo.  There is no “reasonable middle ground” with proposals that are so pernicious to the quality of education in the state.  Accepting a half dose of poison is not a virtue.  It is worthwhile to note the affronts to our public schools from the governor that demand remedy:

Our schools are starved of monetary resources.  Governor Cuomo likes to say that money isn’t an issue because New York spends a lot, but his statement fails to acknowledge a simple truth that education costs what it costs and when you have high concentrations of poverty and other situations that complicate teaching and learning, you will need to spend more even if measurable results are slow to manifest.  Worse, however, is the fact that the governor’s claim is a blatant dodge of the fact that nobody in Albany has ever tried to actually fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that would have increased Albany’s school aid by $7 billion.  Governor Cuomo’s proposal to increase aid by $1.1 billion is barely 20% of the amount needed to fully fund the CFE settlement, and his promise of a mere $380 million if he does not get his full set of proposed education changes is 7% of what is needed.  In addition to simply ignoring the state’s commitments to increase education aid, the governor and legislators have maintained the Gap Elimination Adjustment that Albany uses to take back budgeted school aid in the event of a shortfall, resulting in billions of dollars more in lost school aid cross the state with cuts in personnel and services in most districts.  In his first year in office, Governor Cuomo pushed for and got a property tax cap, which effectively limits how cities and towns might make up for lost state aid due to the GEA and unfunded CFE obligations.

The governor insists that money is not an issue even as he has strangled our schools at every opportunity.  The Assembly’s proposed increase is a mere down payment on correcting this.

The proposed teacher evaluations have no basis in research and will harm education statewide.  With the exception of a few die hard fans who think if they just wish hard enough, value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness will start to work, there is precious little research saying you can reliably and fairly use statistical modeling based on test scores to evaluate teachers.  Worse, we know that the high stakes testing environment instituted under the No Child Left Behind act has narrowed the curriculum and increased test preparation and given us practically nothing worthwhile in return.  No evidence based or frankly rational person would propose at this point to increase the role of standardized testing in our accountability systems for schools and teachers.

So, naturally, Governor Cuomo wants to increase test scores to a full 50% of teacher evaluations.  He wants a further 35% to be in the hands of “outside evaluators,” leaving a mere 15% for school principals.  The benefits of this approach will be non-existent while the damage is already entirely predictable.  The Assembly cannot compromise on this.

Raising the charter school cap will hurt our public schools.  The original idea behind charter schools was to create small, local, experiments in education that would work with students not well served in their schools and feed lessons learned back into the fully public system to see if they could be scaled.  That quickly morphed into the idea of charters as a form of competition seeking to draw both students and resources out of neighborhood schools, and today, the most prominent charters on the landscape are brands unto themselves.  Those charters are politically and financially connected; in New York their financiers have donated handsomely to the governor who has pretty much adopted their agenda lock, stock, and barrel.  More troubling, however, is the fact that the data shows the barely regulated charter school sector not only fails to feed scalable ideas to local schools, but also it acts parasitically.  In New York, charter schools cream students via lottery processes that put unnecessary barriers between the most disadvantaged students and entry.  Once accepted, parents have to agree to levels of involvement that are pose significant difficulties for families with low wage earning adults, and  behavioral expectations as low as Kindergarten result in students who do not immediately conform being pushed out.

The upshot?  No excuses charter school chains have student populations that are less poor, have many fewer students who are limited English proficient, and have fewer students with disabilities and almost no students with difficult to accommodate disabilities.  Once resource competition is factored in, the conclusion is inescapable:  large numbers of charter schools leave fully public schools with student populations that have much greater needs and many fewer resources available to meet those needs.

If the Assembly “compromises” on the charter school cap, it will guarantee further harm to all students.

Tax giveaways for private and parochial school donations while underfunding state school aid is an unacceptable double blow.  The governor’s proposed “tax credit” for education donations allows wealthy donors to take additional tax breaks on donations to private and parochial schools, and it has been criticized as a “back door voucher” plan that would divert money that might otherwise end up in public schools.  Governor Cuomo has also made the passage of the DREAM Act contingent upon passing the tax credit.  It is a sad state of affairs when a governor who has no intention of fully funding public schools would insist upon additional tax breaks for the extremely wealthy that favor private and parochial schools and would hold up the status of children of undocumented immigrants until those tax breaks are in place.  Unfortunately, at least one former opponent of the tax credits has flipped his position, and it is unclear what will come of these negotiations.

Offering the wealthy additional tax breaks to direct donations into private hands while our public schools remain underfunded by $5.6 billion a year should not even be on the table.

This budget process in Albany is no time for a falsely constructed “middle ground” to prevail in the name of “reasonableness.”  The Assembly’s budget proposal is simply a good down payment on the state’s legal obligations to fund public education at levels sufficient to the task.  Removing Governor Cuomo’s damaging reforms on teacher evaluation and dismissal, state take over of schools, charter schools, and tax giveaways to the wealthy is the only reasonable course of action.  There is no “reasonable compromise” between entirely pernicious and minimally acceptable.  Instead of compromising with the governor, Speaker Heastie should demand:

  • A timetable for full funding of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity settlement, adjusted for inflation, and with additional funds to make up for revenue lost because of the GEA and property tax caps.
  • Full repudiation of the GEA in all future school aid budgets.
  • No increases in the charter school cap unless comprehensive eforms place them on an equal playing field with fully public schools, disallow the practices that result in their very disparate student demographics, and subject them to full transparency in their finances and daily operations, especially their disciplinary practices.
  • No consideration of tax breaks for the wealthy to fund private and parochial schools while our public schools remain financially starved by the school aid budget, the gap elimination adjustment, and the property tax cap.

The Assembly needs to remember that Governor Cuomo enjoys a measly 28% approval of his education agenda.  55% of New Yorkers believe that NYSUT would do a better job of improving our schools.  This is a time to hold firm.

Unless, of course, Governor Cuomo really does have your children in Azkaban.  Trust me; we’d like to know.

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

1 Comment

Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, Social Justice, Testing, VAMs

One response to “Dear NYS Assembly Members: Did We Stutter?

  1. Richard Blankenship

    I am expressing my opinion as to what I perceive to be Governor Cuomo’s misinformation concerning the role community colleges play in post-secondary education. The Governor appears to be unaware of three primary functions of education: Social Mobility, Social Efficiency and Democratization. Social Mobility improves the lives of students. Social Efficiency trains individuals for jobs to help the country, and Democratization increases access to all / as many individuals as possible, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds.

    Based on Governor Cuomo’s comments (appearing most succinctly around the twenty-one to twenty-two minute mark in his State of the State speech), the Governor appears to be stuck in the mentality that Social Mobility is the only valid function of education. His remark that community colleges, specifically naming SUNY and CUNY, train students for jobs that no longer exist is amusing in its inaccuracy because (unless the Governor plans to close all four year educational institutions), his statement is unequivocally false. Obviously, he is not aware that almost fifty percent of community college students transfer to four year schools and universities, so if community colleges are not preparing students to create value in society, then he’s saying bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees are unnecessary. Also, there are valuable jobs that do not require bachelor or graduate work, but do require post-secondary training. Community colleges, SUNY and CUNY of which are prime examples, do meet valuable needs that elite schools and the private sector do not, which in fact, I argue, constitute the backbone of America.

    America advertises itself as “great” because it is a nation of immigrants. Does increasing the privatization of education, which by default decreases access to education by the poor and disenfranchised encourage America to become a nation of immigrants? Or, is the statement on the Statue of Liberty pedestal in actuality a tongue-in-cheek joke because it states: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Should it instead read: “Give me your strong, your rich, your privileged yearning to exploit the free?” Any barrier to increased access to public education moves away from a democratic republic towards a tyrannical state. A crucial difference between America and Third World despotic regimes is the universal and ubiquitous rule of law, which is not possible without widespread, liberal education. A liberal education, by definition, is an education fit for a free people.

    Access to education is the key reason America is the #1 choice for immigrants throughout the world (remember, Einstein was a lowly refugee). Perhaps Governor Cuomo clings to the adolescent notion that “freedom equals a lack of barriers” is why so many immigrate to America…hey, I’m free…I can drink, smoke and play loud music as much as I want, as long as I don’t “bother” anybody…I can even vote very four years for whoever looks best on camera, so I’m free…No, access to education, and developing one’s potential to become more than one is, is what makes America “free.” Widespread access to education is why America is such an extremely desirable immigrant destination, and in fact is why America is “great.” There are various aspects of freedom, such as Personal, Civic, and Sovereign, which Governor Cuomolikewise seems unaware, but I do not have time to explain these particulars to him in this brief communication, but will be happy to elaborate anytime he is willing to learn. For now, I will continue to touch on education and its relation to democracy.

    Free education through secondary school is why American society has been able thus far to maintain a nation governed by the rule of law. Uneducated people will not be governed by law, but by dictators. One need only look around the world and/or read history to become cognizant of this fact. Therefore, widespread education of the public is not “optional,” but is a necessity, in order for legislation to be executed in a judicial manner. Such laws, their interpretation and enforcement, are required for a democratic republic to exist. However, before laws can be successfully and peacefully implemented, education must first be widespread, and not simply limited to individuals that can afford private schools.

    The Social Mobility function of education is taken care of by elite schools through selective admissions criteria (Hint: it’s easy to have high retention when an institution is selective about who comes in the door…not as easy for institutions, such as SUNY and CUNY, that meet the needs of the less privileged, creating opportunities for anyone who wants to improve). Elite schools also contribute significantly, but not comprehensively, to the Social Efficiency function education, but contribute little to nil towards the Democratic function. There is nothing wrong with elite colleges. They serve a purpose, but so do community colleges. In the State of the State speech, Governor Cuomo was playing to audiences’ emotions, but just because he’s a persuasive speaker, does not make his statements accurate or valid. It only means he’s mastered the pathos aspect of persuasion, but his ethos and logos are still wanting.

    In Nineteenth Century America agrarian society, free public education through roughly age fourteen or fifteen was sufficient for the vast majority of the middle class, as only the privileged has access to higher education. The Twentieth Century experienced unprecedented modernization (and explosion of migration and immigration…individuals coming from extremely diverse backgrounds…all needing to become reasonably well educated to keep this nation afloat), so extending free public through the eleventh, then finally twelfth, grade became prudent. Post-modern, Twenty-First Century socio-economic realitiescall for (if anything) an increase, not decrease, in public funding for education. Two more years of free public education in order for America to remain an effectively functioning Republic hinging on values derived from a pluralistic democracy would be a wise decision. (In my opinion, taxpayer dollars would be better spent on education than bailing out greedy, irresponsible bankers and brokers…if the public were better educated, perhaps fewer people would’ve fallen for financial disasters such as the sub-prime scam).

    Education is more than learning how to make buggy whips, although Governor Cuomo wants to reduce meaningful instruction to such rudimentary, industrial outcomes. Education involves addressing, and creating, constantly fluctuating needs as humanity moves through both individual and societal changes. A paradox Alexis de Tocqueville mentions in Democracy in America is the more freedom we have, the less equal we are, and the more equal we become, the more difficult it is to protect our freedoms. American democracy thrives in the tension between the two. The word “education” could be substituted for the word “democracy,” and this sentence would carry equal weight and validity.
    It is logicallyimpossible for the governor of New York to truly be so unaware of the facts concerning the function of community colleges, so Governor Cuomo’s remarks deriding and belittling remarks must be some sort of posturing to create the illusion he is “improving” education.If the governor wants a “cause” to address, or if he is seeking to boost his poll numbers, he should examine the private, for-profit schools that use aggressive marketing tactics, loan money to individuals they know cannot repay, who truly do bury individuals in debt in exchange for useless certificates. The government backs loans for these organizations simply because they “buy” accreditation. Instead of backing loans (paid for by taxpayers) for unethical, profit-reaping schools that function on the same principles as loan sharks, why not support community colleges instead, so the three primary functions of education can be realized more harmoniously?

    I encourage readers to google “College, Inc.” and view a Frontline documentary on the unethical business practices of these private, for profit schools Governor Cuomo touts as paths to Stanford-like education quality. Why is Governor Governor Cuomo so intent on privatizing a cherished public good in this country—public education—when privatization around the globe reveals massive unemployment of young people, destructive wars fought over energy, and an increasing gulf between rich and poor? Why does the governor of this state want to exacerbate these problems with less access to community colleges?

    I will refer to Alexis de Tocqueville again (who, in the 1830s, predicted both the American Civil War and that Russia would become a superpower in the Twentieth Century): “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

    The value (and “Greatness”) of America is in its ability to remain fluid, accepting the ever-growing melting-pot of diverse individuals, striving to create the greatest possible potentials for all, through free, public education. It is not easy, but is worth the struggle. Community colleges are key in this endeavor, and should not be derided, but encouraged and supported.

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