These days, by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization, politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the very real problems that affect achievement at school—problems of child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in state budgets. This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania—in New Jersey—in Michigan—in Ohio—in Wisconsin—in Kansas—in Florida—in Georgia.
But nowhere is it more evident than New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat beholden to Wall Street hedge fund interests, has been attacking school teachers, teachers unions, and “government monopoly” schools. In late October at a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, Cuomo pledged, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is. It’s a public monopoly.” The key is to institute “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.” He also made a commitment to increase the use of incentives and sanctions to make teacher evaluation more rigorous.
In his State of the State address today Governor Cuomo, who just won a second term as Governor, is scheduled formally to announce his priorities for 2015, including his plans for public education. Here is how the NY Times describes the lead-up to Cuomo’s scheduled speech: “In speeches, interviews and a letter over the last few weeks, the governor has said that he thinks New York State’s teacher grading system, only in its third year, is too easy to pass, making it too difficult to fire underperforming teachers. He has suggested that a current limit on the number of charter schools needs to be raised or eliminated. He has also expressed support for a tax credit for people and companies donating money to public schools and private school scholarships. All of those positions are opposed by the teachers’ unions, and they, along with advocates of charter schools and other groups that back those changes, have already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars this month to television advertisements in New York City and Albany, leading up to Mr. Cuomo’s State of the State speech….”
Last week the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), in collaboration with the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action, released Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider than Ever, a report that accuses Governor Cuomo, through the budgets he has signed, of widening the gap in investment between wealthy and poor school districts, despite a promise at the beginning of his first term to make school funding more equitable.
AQE reports that as the centerpiece of the remedy in a 2006 ruling in the school funding equity lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. New York (CFE), the state agreed to add $5.5 billion in new Foundation Aid over the next four years. The state honored its commitment in 2007 and 2008 but between 2009 and 2013, the state froze funding and cut school aid. Inadequate state budgets resulted in the loss of almost 40,000 educators and other staff and in widespread reductions in curricular offerings in New York’s poorest school districts.
While as a candidate in October of 2010, Cuomo declared, “I think the inequity in education is probably the civil rights issue of our time. There are two education systems in this state. Not public private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.” Despite these words, according to the new AQE report, during Governor Cuomo’s first two years in office the gap in spending between poor and wealthy school districts, “shot up from $8,024 per pupil to $8,733 per pupil. The gap of $8,733 per pupil is the largest educational inequality gap in New York State history. Tragically the money that was promised in 2007 to keep closing this gap was only delivered for two years and then Governor Cuomo led the legislature to stop funding CFE and the gap widened again.”
Examining one measure of unequal outcomes for students in poor and wealthy districts, AQE tracks high school graduation and notes that from 2005 to 2014, the disparity in graduation rates between the poorest and the wealthiest school districts has hovered consistently between 25 percent and 27 percent. AQE declares, “While there are many factors that contribute to unequal outcomes—particularly the contrasting impacts of poverty and wealth on every aspect of children’s lives—educational resources are the essential ingredients schools provide to close the gap in educational outcomes. These resources include pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum including art, music and physical education as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, mentoring and supports to strengthen teachers, programs for English language learners, and social, emotional and health supports to meet the diverse needs of students.”
AQE recommends that Governor Cuomo and the state of New York improve public schools through five measures: fulfill the commitment to universal full-day pre-kindergarten; make a serious commitment to community schools; focus on high quality curriculum for all students, not testing; meet the needs of English language learners; and close the inequality gap by fully funding schools. The report concludes: “New York’s wealthiest districts are able to offer tremendous curricula with course offerings that include Tournament Debate, Advanced Placement Art History, Advanced Placement Chinese, Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Wall Street: How to Become a Millionaire, and Personal Law (complete with mock trials). These same districts often offer dozens of options in arts, music and performing arts. Meanwhile students in poor communities are fortunate to have a few options for AP courses, are lucky to have more than one foreign language offered, and have seen cutbacks in their limited offerings of art, music, and high school electives.”
The battle over educational equity in New York is a microcosm of what is happening across many states and at the federal level as Congress debates a strategy to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. In New York the battle lines are clearly drawn. Should our society strengthen opportunity by investing in improving the public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of our children? Or should we pretend, as Governor Cuomo seems to do, that we can base education policy on making tougher the evaluation of teachers and creating more charter schools so that some children can escape?