Hillary Clinton’s Stark Education Policy Dilemma

What is Hillary Clinton to do about public education policy?  Clinton has close ties to New York, where opinions among Democrats on public education policy are perhaps more polarized than anywhere else in the country.  Public schools are the quintessential institutions of the 99 percent, but they are threatened in these times when the 1 percent seems to be able to dominate our politics.  As this blog described last week, New York is the epicenter of this conflict. In New York, hedge fund tycoons from Wall Street seem to have successfully pushed Governor Andrew Cuomo to support charter school funding, blame school teachers, and threaten what he has begun calling “government monopoly schools.”

Consider the Main Street needs in a place like Gloversville, New York, a place like so many Northeast mill towns that saw better days a long, long time ago.  Gloversville is upstate—past Albany, Schenectady, and Amsterdam and almost on the border of Adirondack Park.  Described in an article in yesterday’s NY Times, it is a faded town, trying to raise enough money to fix up and modernize its Carnegie Library, built in 1904. Gloversville, which used to produce 90 percent of America’s dress gloves, has lost its industry and even been forced to close its swimming pool and city recreation department.  But Richard Russo, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of novels like Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and Mohawk, grew up in Gloversville, and he has agreed to chair a campaign to raise enough money to rehabilitate the public library.  In a recent speech, he declared: “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”

The contrast between Gloversville and Wall Street captures the dilemma for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who is expected to win her party’s nomination for President.  Hillary has a residence in New York and formerly represented that state in the U.S. Senate.  On Tuesday, the NY Times devoted an article to what promises to be the dilemma for Hillary on education.  Reporter Maggie Haberman explains: “Now, as she prepares for a likely second run at the white House, Mrs. Clinton—who largely avoided domestic policy when she was secretary of state—is re-entering the fray like a Rip Van Winkle for whom the terrain on education standards has shifted markedly, with deep new fissures in the Democratic Party.  Already, she is being pulled in opposite directions on education.  The pressure is from not only the teachers who supported her once and are widely expected to back her again, but also from a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies—charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing—that the teachers’ unions have resisted throughout President Obama’s two terms in office.”

Haberman paints Clinton’s dilemma as between her allegiance to her friend Randi Weingarten (and the American Federation of Teachers) and one hedge fund PAC in New York, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  But it’s not so simple.  In New York support for attacks on teachers and privatization of schools goes way beyond DFER to the much bigger hidden donor organizations—New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany and Families for Excellent Schools, which has spent millions on several occasions during this year for the “Don’t Steal Possible!” TV advertisements that trash public schools and promote charters.  Haberman is correct, however, that Clinton faces polarization in New York and across the country as prominent Democrats have become starkly divided on education.  Supporting an agenda dominated by school closure, promotion of charters and privatization, and student-test-based evaluation of teachers—a philosophy once promoted by Republicans like President George W. Bush and governors like Bobby Jindal (LA), Scott Walker (WI), John Kasich (OH), Rick Snyder (MI) and Bruce Rauner (IL)—is a growing group of business-friendly Democrats like President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Rahm Emmanuel (mayor in Chicago), and Andrew Cuomo (NY).  In New York alone, business interests have invested buckets of money in getting Cuomo to support their interests such as Success Academy Charters and attacks on public school teachers.  Juan Gonzalez recently reported for the NY Daily News—in an article titled, Hedge Fund Executives Give ‘Til It Hurts to Politicians, Especially Cuomo, to Get More Charter Schools—that, “Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers have shelled out nearly $40 million in political contributions in New York State…. The single biggest beneficiary has been Andrew Cuomo, who received $4.8 million from them.”

In a long piece on big money buying policy among Democrats in New York, George Joseph of The Nation magazine reports: “Cuomo has banked his gubernatorial legacy on a budget that would again fail to meet the state’s public-school funding requirements, instead increasing the privatization of New York’s education system and weakening New York State’s once powerful teachers’ union, NYSUT.  Cuomo’s education reform proposal would tie 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student test scores, based on a controversial practice called Value-Added Modeling, drastically weaken teachers’ opportunity for tenure, expedite the firing of teachers, make room for a hundred more charter schools, and promote state takeover of ‘failing’ (or poor) school districts—a tactic that has been used to expand charter school growth without the consent of elected school boards across the country.  In his 2014 re-election bid, Cuomo declared that as governor he would work to enact long-term measures to ‘break’ public education, which he called ‘one of the only remaining public monopolies.’… The consensus that New York public schools do not require more funding is curious, given the landmark 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling and subsequent statewide resolution ordering the state to correct its inequitable school funding formula…”

Joseph describes the lavish expenditures of hedge fund interests as buying influence in Albany: “In the 2014 election cycle, no two groups dominated Albany more than the pro-education reform Families for Excellent Schools (FES) and the anti-tax Super PAC New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany.  Cuomo’s policy proposals come straight out of FES’s playbook… This rapid purchase of this influence is unprecedented.  As Capital New York reported, last September and October alone Families for Excellent Schools spent nearly $2.9 million, more than doubling the previous spending record for that period and making ideas like a 50 percent test-based teacher evaluation suddenly conceivable… Families for Excellent Schools will have spent $13.4 million in 2014, the largest single-year lobbying spree in New York State history.”  “It is almost certain that Families for Excellent Schools and New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany are funded and organized by the same small network of people: the same nine New York hedge-fund billionaires.”

Joseph summarizes the results: “From a purely business standpoint… such cost-effective education reform proposals do make sense for the hedge-fund community, especially given the alternative education reform option: the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools, as mandated by the state’s highest court in 2007.  Low-income New York school districts haven’t received their legally mandated funding since 2009 and the state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion…. Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.  As a recent Hedge Clippers report pointed out, the hedge-fund community has achieved these gains over the last decade and a half by buying political influence and carving out absurd breaks and loopholes in the New York state tax code.  Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers and top executives have poured $39.6 million into the campaign coffers of New York state politicians.  Thus, despite New York’s progressive reputation, its school-district funding-distribution system is actually one of the most regressive nationwide, similar to that of states like Texas, North Carolina and Missouri.”

Whose interests will Hillary Clinton support when it comes to education?  I hope she will listen to the wisdom expressed by Richard Russo as he tries to raise money for the renovation of the public library in the upstate community of Gloversville:  “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”

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3 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton’s Stark Education Policy Dilemma

  1. The battle for public education is a “hearts and minds” issue. Not sure Hilary has much of either any more. Inside the echo chamber, they can’t hear the rising roar of the disenfranchised rabble outside.

  2. What is the record of these Charters in NY? Is it similar to our experience or are they actually holding them accountable? I spend my summer in NY and read the local paper (or as much of it as I can stand) so I know that the local school I attended, now in an impoverished community, is really struggling. I too was educated by the public schools in New York. I spent my first – seventh grades in a “central” school in the middle of the state and when I arrived at a small city public school in Western NY found myself way ahead of my classmates until moved to what they called the “advanced” group of students where I finished my education. I had no problem with college or Frances Payne Bolton S of Nursing either despite the fact that some classmates were already college grads and one had attended Duke her first two years while I was at ordinary B-W. Gale

  3. Unfortunately I have no confidence that Hillary Clinton will be able to turn away from the money and elitist influence of the corporate privatizers of education. The Democratic Party should look elsewhere for a nominee who truly understands what the overwhelming majority of Americans are experiencing and suffering under the thumb of the corporate/elites.

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