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.