What’s with Cuomo and Others Advocating for a “Shock Doctrine” Shift to Online Education?

We need to figure out a way to open public schools in the fall.

Parents are going to need to go back to work, and children need supervision, routine, intellectual stimulation and the socialization that comes with going to school.  And, as we have been observing during these recent months, for millions of children, the public school is the only institution positioned to provide opportunities that may be unavailable at home.

A lot of what I am reading about reopening schools and childcare centers, however, addresses some important needs of adults without carefully considering the developmental needs of the children who will be served.  And some of what is being promoted addresses the priorities of the promoters themselves without considering what is needed for the students.

The agenda of Jeb Bush, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates falls in that last category.  Back in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Naomi Klein published a book about promoters and philanthropists who took advantage of the New Orleans disaster by pushing desperate politicians to adopt public policies that would benefit the promoter’s ideological obsession or, in some cases, the promoter’s bottom line.  In The Shock Doctrine, Klein explains: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)   You will remember that the state’s seizure of New Orleans’ public schools and the eventual creation of an all-charter school district experiment was helped along by a big grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with grants from several other foundations.

This same sort of temptation to repurpose a catastrophe seems to have taken possession of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Last week he announced a plan to work with with Bill Gates to create a gigantic statewide experiment with online learning.  Announcing his plan to “reimagine” public education, Cuomo declared: “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”

And it’s not only Andrew Cuomo who has fallen for the lure of technology. All month, Jeb Bush—Florida’s former governor and chair of the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a pro-privatization think tank that Jeb founded in 2008)— has been promoting a similar agenda. Despite that states are in desperate need of an infusion of federal support to keep teachers employed and class size reasonable, Jeb warns that just using the money to get schools back up and running will be a wasted opportunity: “There will be no end to ways to spend the money: Education is expensive, and there will be plenty of claims on the money. Teacher pensions are depleted. School workers—bus drivers, support staff, administrators—all will want CARES funds to fill gaps in their budges. Then there are public colleges that have lost out on tuition dollars. Trying to spread the money among all these causes would mean not accomplishing much on any of them… (W)ith this pot of money, it is far better to try to make a lasting impact on one big initiative. Governors should entertain what I call ‘long runway’ ideas—areas where the investment will pay off over a long period of time. Think about what has the best payoff: patching a lot of potholes, or rebuilding a major bridge?”

Jeb Bush has four “long-runway ideas” and the first, of course, is digital learning—eliminating the digital divide. Bush expands on this idea: “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones. But stopping distance learning over equity concerns is a false choice. Many school districts, state leaders and others have figured out how to keep instruction going. Some opened access to virtual schools. Some, supported by private donations, have given laptops and tablets to students who need them… It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms—not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning… Longer term, all K-12 schools need to adapt to distance learning. Already, one third of college students take courses online.”

Naomi Klein herself reminds us that her “Shock Doctrine” theory is becoming operational in the midst of the current pandemic crisis.  Klein reports that New York’s Governor Cuomo has been seeking guidance not merely from Bill Gates, but also from Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. While Cuomo asked Gates to lead the effort to “reimagine” New York’s schools, he followed up by inviting Schmidt to lead “a blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine” New York state’s post-Covid reality—with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life. Klein quotes Schmidt: “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do… are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband… We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.”

Klein concludes” “It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the ‘Screen New Deal.’  Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent—and highly profitable—no-touch future.”

The Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Martin Levine is aghast: “Cuomo saw a crisis too good to waste… His framework for change is to fully harness the marvels of technology and create a public education system highly reliant on a new and untested form of education… He didn’t choose to take on problems known to plague public education, making sure that New York’s schools are properly funded, fully staffed, and well equipped. Nor did he choose to address the critical impact of racism and wealth inequality on student success. Instead, he seeks a magic-bullet cure in technology.  Following the path taken by the foundations and mega-philanthropists… he seems willing to try one more experiment out on his state’s children.”

Levine quotes a statement from Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, in response to Governor Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to lead a “reimagining education” initiative. Cuomo put only two schoolteachers on his practitioners’ panel to help “reimagine” education in New York.  Pallotta represents the state’s teachers who are much closer not only to the needs of children and families but also to the realities of daily life in a public school: “New York State United Teachers believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings. If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.”  What is striking in Pallotta’s recommendations is a plea for the kind of human connectedness that defines traditional public schools and is so essential for the health and development of children.

I give Governor Cuomo credit for wanting to improve online learning and to ameliorate the alarming digital divide among wealthy and poor New York families. Presumably he wants to ensure that the city is better prepared should a second wave of Covid-19 illnesses require a second shutdown.  But his rhetoric—“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”—tells a bizarre and very different story. Does Cuomo imagine New York’s children sitting quietly, locked in their apartments with their tablets or at their computers while their parents are at work?  Does he believe a machine can keep Kindergartners engaged and on task? Does he believe such a life is desirable for a five-year-old?  Will computer connections online keep kids company and keep them fed? And what about adolescents—young people capable of doing more sophisticated work online and even research—but also known to lack good judgement. Wouldn’t the streets and subways fill up with kids wandering the city on their own?

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen believes our society is capable of preparing to open public schools next fall if we collectively undertake to make it happen safely. Allen defines the problem not as a technological challenge but instead as political: “There is still time to build testing and contact-tracing programs throughout the country to try to decelerate the spread of COVIC-19 and drive the disease to low enough levels that schools can open safely…  We need schools to be open so that student learning doesn’t suffer further….  We need schools to open so that parents can go back to work fully….  We need schools to be open so that routine provision of food and health resources to needy students… can resume fully….  We need colleges and universities… to be open in the fall so that the many vulnerable institutions among them don’t fail and wipe out a key pillar of our civil society and intellectual infrastructure….  Brown University and the University of California San Diego have begun building infrastructures to conduct routine testing and to run contact-tracing programs on their campuses.  It is not enough, however, that some schools may be able to run programs on their own.”

Allen concludes: “Achieving security in the face of this pathogen should… be a public, not private, endeavor.  Before the start of the school year, we have time to build broad public testing and contact tracing to follow chains of transmission, finding every COVID case, and supporting people in voluntary isolation…. Let’s not waste the rest of the time we have.  If we do, our political institutions will have flunked a basic requirement of governance.”

Is America’s Romance with Charter Schools Fading Despite Gobs of Political Money from Its Promoters?

Last week’s election produced a couple of significant indicators that the public may be growing weary of charter schools.  At the same time the public seems increasingly aware that adequately funded public schools may be a better way to help the children our society has left behind.  This is despite an enormous political investment by wealthy investors in the future of the charter school movement.

Consider the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction. Last month for The Intercept, Rachel M. Cohen explained what this highly contentious, non-partisan race between charter proponent Marshall Tuck and his opponent Tony Thurmond has really been all about: “The California charter school lobby is testing its influence in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, turning an election for a somewhat obscure statewide position into a notably expensive battle.  More than $50 million has flown into the contest between two Democrats for a nonpartisan office with little statutory power.  For perspective, this is more money raised than in any U.S. House race this cycle and most Senate races, not to mention every other race in California, save for the governor’s. The race, largely understood as a proxy war for the future of California charter schools, is the second attempt by the state’s charter school lobby to demonstrate its influence…. The candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, both insist that the race is about far more than charters, which currently enroll 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, though they admit they hold different visions for the publicly funded, privately managed schools. That’s something their funders also acutely recognize.”

On election night, Marshall Tuck, the former president of Green Dot Charters and an advocate for expanding California’s already huge charter sector, was ahead by 86,000 votes. But as mail-in and absentee ballot have been counted, Thurmond has progressively caught up. By Saturday night, EdSource reported, Marshall Tuck was still ahead by 38,251 out of 6,934,591 votes counted by that time. However, by yesterday morning, the California Secretary of State was reporting Tony Thurmond had pulled ahead with a 3,500 vote lead. By last evening, each candidate had cornered roughly 50 percent of the vote, with a tiny 1,808 vote margin for Thurmond. Four years ago in an initial run for state superintendent, Marshall Tuck was defeated by then incumbent,Tom Torlakson.  A week after the election, this year’s race has not yet been called.  Update: Here is an update from EdSource published soon after this blog was posted.

While Tuck was the pro-charter school candidate, Tony Thurmond shaped his campaign around policies to strengthen public schools.  In an endorsement of Thurmond, the Network for Public Education explained: “Assemblyman Thurmond has been a member of the State Assembly since 2014.  He serves on the Assembly Committee on Education, and has made education policy his top priority.  Before serving in the legislature, he was on the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board for four years… His public school education prepared him for a 20-year career in social work, where he ran after-school programs and taught life skills and career training… He understands that class size has proven to be one of the most important factors in a child’s learning.  Thurmond said that he will ‘support legislation, policy changes, funding to reduce class sizes.’ ”

The tightness of this race is especially surprising when you consider the amount of money contributed to Marshall Tuck’s campaign—$28.5 million—by billionaire backers of charter schools, many of them from out-of-state.  Writing for Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan describes Tuck’s donors: “The money has come from a who’s who of charter school backers and K-12 philanthropists, including Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Lynn Schusterman, Julian Robertson, Laurene Powell Jobs, Laura and John Arnold, Dan Loeb, Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma, and three Waltons: Carrie Walton Penner, Alice Walton and Jim Walton.  Among Tuck’s biggest backers was Helen Schwab… who gave $2 million to EdVoice for the Kids PAC, which managed independent campaign committees for Tuck; Arthur Rock, the venture capitalist, gave $3 million to EdVoice, while Doris Fisher gave over $3 million… A less familiar name on the list of top backers to EdVoice is businessman Bill Bloomfield.  In fact, Bloomfield was the single biggest supporter of the PAC this year, with $5.3 in donations.”

Callahan adds: “(I)n an era when most economic gains have gone to top earners, the wealthy have more money than ever to press their public policy preferences. California’s education system has been dramatically changed in the past 15 years by the rise of charters.  Much of this change wouldn’t have happened without the backing of rich donors.”

Then there is New York, where the state senate flipped, creating an all-Democratic legislature. For the NY Times, Eliza Shapiro reports that charter schools faced a backlash in last week’s election, where charter school-supporting Republican legislators were ousted and replaced by a Democratic majority: “Over the last decade, the charter school movement gained a significant foothold in New York, demonstrating along the way that it could build fruitful alliances with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other prominent Democrats. The movement hoped to set a national example—if charter schools could make it in a deep blue state like New York they could make it anywhere.  But the election on Tuesday strongly suggested that the golden era of charter schools is over in New York. The insurgent Democrats who were at the forefront of the party’s successful effort to take over the State Senate have repeatedly expressed hostility to the movement.  John Liu, a newly elected Democratic state senator from Queens, has said New York City should ‘get rid of large charter school networks.’  Robert Jackson, a Democrat who will represent a Manhattan district… promised during his campaign to support charter schools only if they have unionized teachers.  And… Julia Salazar of Brooklyn recently broadcast a simple message about charter schools: ‘I’m not interested in privatizing our public schools.'”

Shapiro emphasizes that, while nobody plans to shut down existing charter schools: “(I)t seems highly likely that a New York Legislature entirely under Democratic control will restrict the number of new charter schools that can open, and tighten regulations on existing ones.”  She adds: “The defeat is magnified because Mr. Cuomo, a shrewd observer of national political trends with an eye toward a potential White House bid recently softened his support for charter schools… Now charter school supporters are wrestling with the unpleasant reality that a supposedly bipartisan movement… has been effectively linked to Wall Street, Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos….”

Here are some of the challenges charter school promoters will face in New York’s newly all-Democratic state legislature: “The Legislature may not even bother to take up charter advocates’ most pressing need: lifting the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.  Fewer than 10 new charters schools can open in New York City until the law is changed in Albany.  That means the city’s largest charter networks, including the widely known Success Academy, will be stymied in their ambitious goal of expanding enough to become parallel districts within the school system… And charters will now be partially regulated by the movement’s political foes.  State Senate Democrats, with the lobbying support of teachers’ unions, are likely to push laws requiring charter schools to enroll a certain number of students with disabilities or students learning English. Previous proposals indicate that those politicians may force charters to divulge their finances, and could make it harder for charters to operate in public school buildings. Those legislators could even impose a limit of about $200,000 on charter school executives’ salaries.  At least two operators made over $700,000 in 2016.”

Shapiro concludes, reminding readers that last year, Daniel Loeb, a hedge fund manager and huge backer of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network , was forced to resign as chairman of the Success Academy board because, in a statement widely shared in the press, he said that, “a black state senator who has been skeptical of charter schools had done more damage to black people than the Ku Klux Klan.” “On Tuesday,” explains Shapiro, “that senator, Andrea Steward-Cousins, became the next leader of the New York State Senate.”

Common Cause Takes on Wealthy NY School Privatizers and ALEC

Common Cause New York has just published a scathing report that, “shows how political spending around education issues has spiraled in New York State, making it virtually impossible for everyday New Yorkers not already aligned with either side of the issue to obtain objective information or have their voices heard.  While in the past, education union political strength has resulted in the adoption of measures favored by teachers, the infusion of direct campaign contributions on the part of privatizers has resulted in (proposed) education scholarship tax credit bills that significantly advantage the wealthy in ways not seen in other states….”

Who are the top ten political donors and privatizers who have made donations—between 2005-and 2014—to organizations supporting privatization of public education, expansion of charter schools, and stiff accountability for teachers tied to test scores? Common Cause identifies these donors: Michael Bloomberg who launched corporate school reform during his three terms—$9,203,195;  David Koch—$1,609,627; James Simons—$3,007,350; Paul Singer (board member of Success Academy Charters and Manhattan Institute)—$2,202,770; Daniel Loeb (chair of Success Academy Charter Board, co-founder of Students First New York, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany)—$1,941,367; Paul Tudor Jones, II (founding member of Students First New York,  founder of Excellence Charter School, supporter of charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation, funder of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$1,547,750; Bruce Kovner (founder of School Choice Scholarship Fund, funder of Bronx Preparatory Charter School and the Brighter Choice Foundation), $1,445,100; Roger Hertog (founding chair of Foundation for Opportunity in Education, board member of StudentsFirst New York, supporter of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC—$1,445,735; Julian Robertson, Jr. (founder of PAVE charter schools)—$1,113,477; and Joel Greenblatt (Chair of Success Academy Charter School Board, co-founder Democrats for Education Reform, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$934,740.

While education unions and their allies spent $117.4 million in lobbying and non-candidate expenditures from 2005-2014, giving by advocates for privatization was only $44 million, but donations from those who favor privatization have grown rapidly since 2010 and have come from fewer than 400 wealthy individuals.  In contrast, union donations have been made by, “at least 75,000 contributions to Union PACS from well over 18,000 individuals, associated organizations and PACS.”  According to Common Cause, “Pro-privatization spending in substantial amounts is a recent phenomenon, showing exponential growth in the last five years, while union spending has remained at a fairly high constant level over the last 10 years.  In 2014, education privatization interests outspent education unions on contributions by $3.15 million.”

Here is what happened in 2014 to transform educational lobbying in the state of New York: “2014 was a game changer for privatizer spending, not only in campaign contributions, but also in lobbying.  Families for Excellent Schools (FES) yet another charity-advocacy organization created by the same hedge fund billionaires active throughout the country (which shares office space with StudentsFirst NY) registered as a lobbyist for the first time in NYS (New York State) in March, 2014.  FES’s lobbying expenditures eclipsed all other (New York donor) organizations in every industry, placing it at the top of the JCOPE annual list of lobbying entities ranked by total lobbying expenditures.  The $9,670,372 FES spent lobbying is almost $5 million more than NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) and UFT (United Federation of Teachers) combined lobbying for 2014.  What is even more incredible is that the majority of the FES lobbying spending was spent in March and April of 2014… This tidal wave of money was directly aimed at influencing how the 2014 NYS budget handled education policy, and FES added muscle to another privatizer player backed by hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner, The Foundation for Opportunity in Education…  FES has received millions of dollars in combined funding from the Walton Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—the very same foundations funding Democrats for Education Reform, the Success Charter School network, StudentsFirst, and ALEC—to name just a few.”

Common Cause has made the exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the centerpiece of its work, and this report covers ALEC in some depth, especially in relation to the bills that Governor Andrew Cuomo is supporting that would bring tuition tax credit school vouchers to New York.  Here is how Common Cause describes ALEC: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country…. Among ALEC’s legislative portfolio are bills to privatize public schools and prisons, weaken voting rights, eviscerate environmental protections and cripple public worker unions.  Common Cause has filed a ‘whistleblower’ complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service, accusing the group of violating its tax-exempt status by operating as a lobby while claiming to be a charity.”  Common Cause’s New York report concludes that ALEC model bills including “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” and the “Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act” appear to be the templates for the tuition tax credit school voucher program Governor Cuomo is trying to get New York’s legislature to include in next year’s budget, currently being debated.

Common Cause concludes: “The current trend of market-based education proposals can be seen as interrelated to the ideology and policy goals that contributed to the pre-2008 deregulations of the financial industry and to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.  Using a long term, multi-pronged strategy, the self-styled ‘education reform’ organizations (whose boards are populated by the very hedge fund executives who have dominated Super PAC contributions since the Citizens United decision) are framing this issue.  They have used their wealth to access and infiltrate the policy landscape on almost every front except one: the teachers’ unions.  In an increasingly polarized debate, these camps are battling for ideological control of the future of education policy at all levels of government.”

I encourage you to read this lucid report packed with information.

Vouchers Across the States… and Proposed for New York

Last week when I learned that New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been going around that supposedly progressive state in the Northeast promoting a state Parental Choice in Education Act—a kind of school vouchers, I wondered if maybe we’ve really lost the battle against the privatization of public education, one of our society’s great achievements.  Here is this blog’s post last week on Governor Cuomo’s new proposal for tuition tax credits in New York state.

Vouchers and tuition tax credits both award public dollars as scholarships to students to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Vouchers give away tax dollars directly as scholarships.  Tuition tax credits give big tax breaks to those who contribute to funds for creating the scholarships.  The state education budget—on which public school districts depend—ends up much smaller in both instances.

Here is the Albany Times Union editorial board’s commentary on Governor Cuomo’s proposed tuition tax credits: “A governor who perennially complains about schools’ insatiable appetite for money has suddenly found millions of dollars to burn through for his Parental Choice in Education Act.  It’s a public-private partnership of the worst sort—the public pays the tab, private schools and wealthy donors reap the benefits.  Perhaps Mr. Cuomo sees this as another way to break what he calls the ‘public education monopoly’—as if public schools were not something in which we all have a stake.  But Mr. Cuomo seems to have conflated public education with his animosity for teachers’ unions.”

How does the proposal work? Private donors could “take a tax credit of 75 percent of their donations to nonprofit education foundations, up to $1 million.  Senate and Assembly versions of the bill would allow up to 90 percent.  That’s money shaved off a person’s or a corporation’s tax bill—and they could roll it from year to year if the credit exceeded their tax liability.”

Vouchers have always been popular on the far right. When I read about Cuomo’s new proposal, I wondered if they are trending up across the states.  But here is what I discovered.  Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have programs they identify as vouchers: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  Fifteen states have enacted tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.  Sixteen of these states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin—are one-party states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.  Pennsylvania, an industrial state in the Northeast, was a Republican one-party state until former Governor Tom Corbett was voted out of office last November in large part due policies that have punished the public schools in cities like Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown. Clearly a number of states have undertaken such school privatization plans, but expansion of vouchers has not taken off.

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education reports that earlier this week three dozen organizations banded together in New York to “decry the tax break as one that siphons taxpayer money from public schools and funnels it into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires.” The organizations that have joined in coalition represent the 99 Percent—constituents whose members depend on strong public schools for their children and the strength of their communities. It is heartening to see such a broad based coalition— including civic, religious, education, and labor organizations—gathering to defend public education: A. Philip Randolph Institute, AFSCME, Advocates for Children of New York, Alliance for Quality Education, Balcony, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Citizen Action of New York, Citizen Budget Commission, CSEA, DC 37-AFSCME, Interfaith Impact of New York State, La Fuente, League of Women Voters of New York State, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road New York, NAACP-New York State Chapter, New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State AFL-CIO, New York State Association of School Business Officials, New York State Federation of School Administrators, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York State School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers, New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, Public Employees Federation, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, Rochester-Finger Lakes Pride @ Work , Rural Schools Association of New York State, School Administrators Association of New York State, Strong Economy for All, The Black Institute, The Council of School Superintendents, United Federation of Teachers, and Working Families Party.

The Albany Times Union editorial board charges Cuomo with refusing fully to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity remedy the state agreed to back in 2006: “What’s perhaps most troubling here is how Mr. Cuomo has railed about the need to put public education on a crash diet, even as advocates accuse him of underfunding needy schools in cities and less affluent rural areas.  Now, suddenly, a state that supposedly could not afford to keep throwing money at public schools has $50 million to $150 million a year for private and parochial schools?”

David Little, Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, is quoted in the Alliance for Quality Education’s press release announcing the anti-tax credit coalition: “For New York State to consider diverting available funds away from public education while it has a law that unconstitutionally withholds funds from school districts is unconscionable.  If the state cannot afford its public educational system, it certainly can’t afford a second one.”

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education Urges Cuomo to Invest in Public School Equity

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?

In New York A Tale of Two Democrats

As election week dawned on Monday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem to announce an exciting and expensive public school improvement plan for 94 of New York City’s struggling schools.

Chalkbeat NY reported: “Mayor Bill deBlasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers…  De Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets.  Even as he rebuked the previous administration for ‘casually shuttering’ schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Blasio said the city will  ‘close any schools that don’t measure up’ after three years of intensive support.  ‘We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed… but we will not wait forever.'”

According to the NY Times, the program’s primary reform is wraparound social services to address the needs presented by children in poverty. Such schools with social services provided right in the school building are known as Community Schools.  Some schools will begin offering health, mental health and dental services.  Students will receive an additional hour of instruction, teachers will receive extra training, and schools will be encouraged to provide summer school. The program, envisioned for three years, will add $150 million for school support and improvement—$39 million in the first year and $111 million in the second year.  Funding for the third year is still being negotiated.

Chalkbeat NY describes the plan: “Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools.  They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.”  Carmen Farina, the chancellor, is currently evaluating principals.  Teachers are to get added training, and new guidance counselors will be assigned later in this school year.  Each of the 94 targeted schools must develop its own improvement plan to be submitted to the chancellor this spring.

Compare the Democratic NYC mayor’s public school improvement plan to the attitude of New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat who has been running for re-election. Sounding like a mouthpiece for the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last week Governor Cuomo—in a meeting with the editorial board of the New York Daily News—announced his plan for the public schools: “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies—and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”  He said he plans to install “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”  Then he attacked teachers: “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations—I get it.  I feel exactly the opposite.”

Cuomo—who, according to the NY Times, in the past four years raised $45 million in campaign contributions (many from wealthy business interests and hedge fund managers associated with Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter PAC, and with Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools)—flooded the airwaves, led his Republican challenger throughout the campaign, and was in no danger of losing yesterday’s election.  We can expect to see a continuing battle between Cuomo—a believer in test-and-punish,  and de Blasio—a proponent of support-and-improve.  These two Democrats are diametrically opposed when it comes to public school policy.

Why Checks and Balances Need to Include the Courts

Just last week the Education Law Center, whose attorneys have litigated the landmark New Jersey school funding case in Abbott v. Burke, announced that the Education Law Center has “joined the legal teams in Maisto v. State of New York and Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, lawsuits on behalf of students in 8 Small City New York school districts and 16 poor, rural, New Jersey districts, respectively.  These cases challenge deep resource deficits and unconstitutionally low funding by each State, in violation of their state constitutions.”

It would be so nice to think that when school districts are short of money, citizens would raise their taxes to pay for what’s needed for the children. What does it say about our society that funding our schools has become deeply contentious?

According to the Education Law Center, the towns bringing the lawsuit in New York are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, and Utica. Together they serve 55,000 students.  All have poverty rates over 50 percent; in at least one community the poverty rate is 94 percent. “All have low property wealth and income and have experienced substantial shortfalls and state cuts in school funding in recent years.”

In New Jersey, attorneys say that a remedial order from the New Jersey Department of Education in 2009 ordered that students in 16 rural districts be fully funded under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  The state has not complied.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center commented: “Governor Chris Christie’s stubborn resistance to investing in our children leaves no alternative but to take appropriate legal action.”  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to promise tax cuts as part of his platform for reelection this coming November.

Being free from such court oversight to enforce the mandates of a state constitution appeals to Chad Readler, a Columbus, Ohio attorney who chairs Ohio’s Constitutional Modernization Commission.  Readler is also, according to Karen Kesler of StateImpact Ohio, the chairman of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools.  Kesler updates earlier reports that Readler’s goal is to have the Constitutional Modernization Commission remove protection for school funding from Ohio’s constitution by deleting this clause: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common school throughout the state.” Kesler quotes Readler:  “That language has been used as a vehicle to take those disputes to court and have judges set our education policy rather than boards of education and legislatures.  And in my mind that’s a concern.  I think that boards of education and legislatures are better equipped to address education policy issues.”  (This blog most recently posted on the Ohio controversy here.)

Kesler interviews members of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House serving on the Constitutional Modernization Commission who agree with Readler and want to remove the language that makes school funding justiciable in Ohio.  They say they want the Ohio Constitution to protect school choice instead.  Kesler also quotes Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University, who “fears if that language is removed, there would be no right to public education in Ohio, because the U.S. Supreme court has already held that education is not a federal fundamental right and has left it to the states.” Wilson comments, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”

Ravitch on Charters: NY Review of Books and Bill Moyers Interview

According to the NY Times, a deal has been cut in a New York state budget bill that will stop New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from charging rent to charter schools and also prevent his halting the practice of co-location (putting charter schools in buildings that already house a traditional public school).  The budget agreement will preserve these policies of Mayor Bloomberg that Mayor de Blasio has sought to end. “Most significantly, the legislation would require the city to find space for charter schools inside public school buildings or pay much of the cost to house them in private space. The legislation would also prohibit the city from charging rent to charter schools, an idea Mr. de Blasio had championed as a candidate for mayor.”

Mayor de Blasio had resisted New York City’s tradition of accommodating charter schools (funded with public money and in New York endowed additionally by wealthy financiers) with rent-free space in public buildings. While he approved the majority of requests for new space from charter schools in February (the charter school co-locations had been pre-approved by Mayor Bloomberg before he left office), Mayor de Blasio attempted to cancel plans for three schools affiliated with a network known as Success Academy Charter Schools.  Two of the schools would have moved very young children into high schools, a situation de Blasio believed created safety issues.  A third would have threatened space currently housing physical therapy and other special services for disabled students.

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is known to favor charters.  This blog has tracked his significant campaign finance support from charter operators and wealthy members of their boards here and here.  The NY Times quotes Cuomo on the new budget agreement: “We want to protect and grow and support that charter school movement, and this budget does that.”

The education historian Diane Ravitch, herself a New Yorker, has spoken twice during the past week to clarify the issues underneath the political war over privatization and charters.  In an article published by the New York Review of Books, New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters, Ravitch describes the privileged status of particular charter school chains under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the rage of their supporters when someone has the audacity to speak up for the needs of the 94 percent of NYC children in traditional public schools, and the “ardent devotion” of Governor Andrew Cuomo to the charter cause, a devotion that “may have been abetted by the $800,000 in campaign contributions he received from charter advocates in the financial industry.”  Ravitch hopes the public will begin to understand what it  means “for New York City to have two school systems, both supported with public money, with one free to choose and remove its students and the other required to accept all students.”  “That lesson may ultimately be the undoing of the stealth effort to transfer public funds to support a small number of privately-managed schools, amply endowed by billionaires and foundations, that refuse to pay rent and are devoted to competing with, not helping, the general school population.”

Then over the weekend Bill Moyers aired a half-hour interview with Diane Ravitch on PBS.  Moyers and Ravitch cover lots of ground—the money behind the movement for privatization of public education, the role of individuals such as  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and the role of far-right organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.   Here is part of Moyers’ introduction to the program:

“And whatever you think about the merit of charter schools versus public schools, merit is no longer driving the debate.  What’s driving the debate is money.  The charter movement is now part of the growing privatization of public education, and Wall Street sees an emerging market.  Take a look at this piece published last fall on Forbes.com.  ‘… dozens of bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors…’ ‘gathered to discuss… investing in for-profit education companies…’  There’s a potential gold rush here.  Public education from kindergarten through high school pulls in more than $500 billion in taxpayer revenues every year, and crony capitalists and politicians alike are cashing in.”

Ravitch declares, “I think at the rate we’re moving now, we will see places like Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and many, many other cities where public schools become, if they exist, they will be a dumping ground for the kids that the charter schools don’t want.”  Ravitch knows that the competition for test scores set up by No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top puts the schools serving society’s most vulnerable children at a terrible disadvantage, and competition creates incentives for charter schools to make sure they (often subtly) screen out children whose scores are likely to be low.  “So if you’re going to make scores the be all and the end all of education, you don’t want the kids with disabilities.  You don’t want the kids who don’t speak English.  You don’t want the troublemakers.  You don’t want the kids with low scores.  You want to keep those kids out.  And the charters have gotten very good at finding out how to do that.”

Here is the full interview as it aired on PBS.   If you prefer,you’ll find  a transcript here.  And on Moyers’ Public Schools for Sale page, you’ll find additional articles and resources.

Why Are We Easily Distracted in School Reform Debate? Follow the Money

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools or privatizing them.

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network this morning, points out that we are easily distracted from this goal, if in fact it is really our goal in the first place: “This is what the debate about education policy—and charter schools in particular—so often comes to: So much sturm and drang about a favored trinket from the ‘education reform’ tool box while matters of way more importance get neglected or even abused.  What could be more important than charter schools?”

This month New York City has become the microcosm of the national conflict between the rights and needs of children in traditional public schools and the rights of privatizers trying to open and fund charter schools.  New York’s new mayor, Bill deBlasio has become a leader assiduously trying to create the public will to address the rights of children whose needs for public services are overwhelming.

Mayor deBlasio has proposed universal pre-kindergarten for New York City, and he has proposed after-school programs for children in the middle grades—programs to enrich the children’s lives, improve their educational skills, and fill the hours between 3 PM and the time their parents arrive home from work—the unsupervised hours when many pre-adolescents can get in trouble.  Last week he drew a line, barring politically connected Eva Moskowitz from co-locating (rent-free) a charter elementary school into a building that houses programs for students with serious disabilities.  The new mayor barred the formation of that particular charter school and two others, while he permitted many to go forward.

In Bryant’s article you’ll find a link to a short video made by parents at one of the traditional schools where Mayor deBlasio barred the co-location of a charter.  The parents speak powerfully about the school’s positive programs for the smiling children who stand nearby.  These parents merely ask that their children’s lives not be further complicated by the co-location of another school into the building apparently already occupied by their children’s school and two others.

Bryant raises a number of urgently important concerns about public education in New York City and elsewhere—facilities in need of repair and upgrade—and most important, unequally distributed and inadequate state financing of public schools, a major concern at this time in New York, as the state has never lived up to its obligation under a lawsuit a decade ago when the state’s funding system was found wanting by its state supreme court.

Bryant is correct that the media’s “education reform enthusiasts play up the hysterics of charter schools as an ideological cause.”  And this week, as he points out, the proponents of charters have pulled out all the stops in the press—not only Morning Joe, but also Peggy Noonan, and Richard Whitmire (Michelle Rhee’s biographer).  Rupert Murdoch, who strongly supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies (that favored charter schools) and now employs Bloomberg’s schools chancellor Joel Klein in a new “education” division of the News Corporation, has also been vocal this week in opposing Mayor deBlasio.

The biggest cause of last week’s flare up in New York was New York  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for the rights of Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools and his failure to support Mayor deBlasio and the needs of traditional public schools.  Cuomo told thousands of charter school children and parents Moskowitz had bused to Albany for a rally: “You are not alone.  We will save charter schools.”

Many have wondered why Governor Cuomo is so anxious to speak up for charters, when the majority of the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students (and parents across the state of New York)—like those in the video Bryant features—depend on the city’s traditional public schools.   For the answer to this question it is essential to follow the money.  Cuomo has depended on the pro-charter PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  DFER was founded by hedge fund managers who have been among the strongest supporters of New York City’s charter schools.  According to a January 2014 report from Chalkbeat New York, DFER has contributed $35,000 so far to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  John Petrey,  a co-founder of DFER has donated $35,000 and Whitney Tilson another co-founder of DFER, $12,000.  Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC, Great Public Schools, has donated $65,000.  Members of the board of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools who have also contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign include Sam Cole ($30,000), Bryan Binder ($15,000), Jill Braufman ($57,500), Dan and Margaret Loeb ($29,367), Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($75,000), Dan Nir ($35,000), Charles Staunch ($15,000), Jarrett Posner ($2,500), and Andrea and Dana Stone ($75,000).  I urge you to check out this report.

Beyond New York City, we should all ask ourselves why we are so willing to give the well-connected like Eva Moskowitz the benefit of the doubt at the same time we easily forget about the students across our big cities where poverty is intensely concentrated and where schools are under-funded.  Why are we so taken with so-called “school reform” when it involves closing the public schools and opening privatized alternatives?  Are we, too, being gulled by money and celebrity?

Mayor de Blasio Defends Preschool and After-School Programs with Determination

New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio made the needs of young children and pre-adolescents the centerpiece of his election campaign last fall.   A promotional website describes a well framed  “plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-k for every four year old and after school for every middle school student in New York City.”

In New York approving even local tax requests is a state responsibility. Yesterday de Blasio traveled to Albany to ask members of the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation for the modest New York City income tax he seeks to levy on those earning over $500,000 annually.

Pressure from de Blasio has forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to address the need for preschool as well, though the details are a little murky because his plan is also paired with the statewide tax cut he anticipates will help him get reelected next fall.  According to Bloomberg News,  Cuomo says pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds across the state will cost $2.2 billion; Mayor de Blasio says his plan for pre-kindergarten and after school programs for middle schoolers in New York City alone will cost $2.5 billion.  He has proclaimed he will not back down on a plan that is urgently needed by New York City’s families.

Asking de Blasio to accept his more modest statewide proposal, Cuomo charges de Blasio can’t possibly get a program set up to provide preschool for 54,000 four-year-olds by September.  Cuomo also suggests a more modest start-up and phase-in.  Proclaiming such programs should be a right for all children in New York City, the new mayor is unwilling to carve these programs back by making them available only to poor families who clearly demonstrate the greatest need.  According to the NY Times, the mayor told lawmakers, “The city’s right to self determination ought to be honored in Albany.”

Bloomberg News reports that deBlasio intends to reach all 4-year-olds by using half of almost 4,000 classrooms identified by officials within public school buildings along with sites in community-based organizations.  The mayor predicts an average cost at $10,239 per child, or $340 million annually, including  expansion and operational costs, with almost $100 million for start-up and infrastructure costs.

The mayor’s proposed tax would also provide optional after school programs at school, a library, or a community organization for 205,000 middle school students.  According to the Hechinger Report which is covering this part of de Blasio’s plan, the number of seats available in such programs has been significantly reduced during the lean budget years since 2008.  The mayor promotes this part of his plan by noting the need for good supervision to keep kids out of trouble in the after-school hours and for the kind of enrichment more affluent children take for granted: “After-school programs can help students find something they love to do, whether dance, theater, or sports, providing motivation that extends to the regular academic day.”

Mayor de Blasio says a primary reason he continues to push for a dedicated local funding stream rather than accepting Cuomo’s proposed compromise is to avoid the ups and downs of the state budget and appropriations process.  He emphasizes the need for reliable funding.  After all, New York is one of 34 states that has not restored public school funding to the 2008, pre-recession level.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, New York spends 5.1 percent less, in inflation adjusted dollars, on public education than it did in 2008.

The new mayor’s determination to defend his program on its merits has kept the eye of the press on the needs of young children, pre-adolescents and families in New York City.  His plan to put a program in place without a long phase-in demonstrates deBlasio’s determination to address inequality.  Children and families can’t wait and for most there is no way to afford a private program.