I have read several articles and posts about Mario Cuomo’s State of the State speech wherein he declares that NYS schools are in a state of crisis…. but the NYTimes looked into the issue a couple of days ago and found no evidence to support that assertion. This quote captures the findings of independent education researchers:
In any case, experts said it would be hard to justify describing the situation in New York as a crisis, unless persistent mediocrity itself were a crisis. “Since the early ’90s, New York scored about average, and nothing’s changed,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the NAEP scores. “If New York schools are in a state of crisis, they’ve been in a state of crisis for 20 years.”
Well something HAS changed. It seems that Mr. Cuomo and his “reform” minded friends who operate or invest in privatized charter schools need to have a crisis declared in order to continue their expansion into the “market” of public education. A manufactured “crisis” will help accelerate the spread of these for-profit institutions across the state.
It also seems that Mr. Cuomo has joined the majority of governors who face financial challenges in declaring the “failure of public education” on “bad teachers”. Mr. Cuomo made the link explicit in his speech:
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, drew a contrast between students’ performance on state tests and teachers’ performance on their annual evaluations. Noting that only a third of students passed the state’s new reading and math tests, and that the vast majority of teachers received good marks, he said the current evaluation system was “baloney” and called for it to be made more stringent.
In Mr. Cuomo’s world there would be fewer “bad teachers” and higher test scores if only the evaluation systems were more stringent. But, as noted in earlier posts, Mr. Cuomo has created the low test score by instituting inappropriately scaled tests and Mr. Cuomo’s analysis of the evaluation systems overlooks the fact that many weak teachers leave the profession when they learn that they might be non-renewed, an action that requires no action by the local Board and is largely unreported in board minutes. Acknowledging that administrators are carefully and thoughtfully evaluating new teachers would not support the “crisis” narrative, though, and so it is unreported in the media and unappreciated by the public.
In declaring a “crisis” where none exists Mr. Cuomo is using the playbook of former President Ronald Reagan, “the great communicator” who declared government as the problem and appointed Terrell Bell whose publication “A Nation At Risk” started the whole meme of “failing schools”. Mr. Reagan would be pleased to see the son of one of his staunch liberal opponents extolling the virtues of the marketplace in public schools.
Zephyr Teachout, whose candidacy against incumbent NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo was surprisingly strong, wrote an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes titled “Legal Bribery“. The column decries the effects of Citizens United on the way business is conducted in politics. Using the recent arraignment of Speaker of the House Sheldon Silver as a springboard for her analysis, Teachout describes the way campaign contributions can impact political decision making and lead to outright bribery:
Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.
I read this on the heels of reading a recent blog post by Diane Ravitch about campaigns in Douglas County, CO, where pro-privatization candidates won elections and began to dismantle a schools system that was not encountering any serious difficulties. That led me to post this comment:
There is an effect of campaign finance that should disturb public education advocates like Ms. Teachout: investors in privatized public education are underwriting the campaigns of “reform” candidates who favor the replacement of “failing” public schools with for-profit charters. If you don’t think this is happening now read Diane Ravitch’s blog where you’ll see many examples… this one for example:
And state residents must wonder why “school reform” is a front burner issue in NY, NJ, and CT whose schools are performing far better than headlines and their governors want you to believe. Perhaps a look at campaign financing could shed some light on this issue as well.
I realize that there are differences between the kind of campaign contributions Teachout cites and the ones frequently recounted in Diane Ravitch’s column.
- Governors and state legislators oversee a wide array of functions and, therefore, have many more opportunities to receive campaign funds with implicit quid pro quos.
- Their elections, particularly those of Governor, tend to generate more coverage and, therefore, engage a higher percentage of the electorate.
- Contributors interested in providing privatization services need to spend more money to get a state official elected than getting a local official elected.
All of this makes local school board elections and/or elections of “undercard” positions like State Board or State or County Superintendents a relatively cost-effective way to make inroads in privatization. And these “investments” have two benefits: they are completely transparent and, therefore, more defensible; and they can achieve results more rapidly.
Candidates who run on “reform” campaigns are often clear about their intentions and appeal to those who want to be certain their taxes will not increase. By promoting the virtues of the marketplace and the “failure” of public schools candidates can run on platforms that make it clear they are advocating privatization and, if they choose to or need to, accept donations from any number of enterprises that will offer privatization services with a straight face. The campaign contributions in this case mirror the explicit principles of the candidate. They are, in effect, no different than the Sierra Club contributions received by a pro-environmental candidate.
Most importantly to an investor in privatization, once a school board has a majority of pro-privatization candidates, change can occur democratically AND rapidly. By raising hands at a board meeting it would be possible to replace “failing” public schools with for-profit charters or possible to institute some form of vouchers within the constitutional framework of the state, or possible to close all the schools and replace them with for-profit charters. There will be pushback from those who opposed the candidates platforms— especially those who neglected to vote and especially those who would be effected by the closure of schools.
This direction for public education is difficult to reverse once it gets started… and, unfortunately, “the train has already left the station” in several states. As the analysis above indicates, campaign reform won’t necessarily fix the problem: only voter engagement will work… and voters seem to be slow to recognize the demise of their locally controlled public schools.
Earlier this week, the US edition of The Guardian posted an article by Sarah Smarsh on the state of public education in Kansas. As reported in earlier blog posts, KS finds itself in a funding crisis because their Governor has lowered taxes to entice the expansion of business and recently lost a Supreme Court case filed by a parent who felt that KS was not sufficiently funding its schools and that lack of funding resulted unconstitutional inequities. The Guardian suggests that the Governor or the legislature, which is sympathetic to his cause, might offer a solution that would not only please the court, but would also please privatization advocates like the Koch bothers who live in KS and the large number of fundamental Christians: vouchers. If the legislature closed public schools and offered vouchers to parents that could be used in any school at all, fundamentalists could open private academies to address their concerns about the secular humanism rampant in public education and the Koch brothers’ kindred spirits could open for profit charters and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay any more money at all. It would be a win-win-win for the taxpayers, the fundamentalists, and the profiteers… but it would be dreadful for the very students whose parent filed the lawsuit because it would end public education as we know it today.
Smarsh notes parallels between Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and this case today, one of which was that the plaintiffs in both cases were pastors of churches. She writes:
It was a good legal strategy that a longtime Christian clergyman became the namesake for Gannon v Kansas (the lawsuit seeking funding equity), a lawsuit bent on increasing funding for a secular institution. Similarly, in Brown v Board some 60 years ago, Topeka dad Oliver Brown took the title spot for being a respected pastor. The two cases contain plenty more parallels, and if there was a poor people’s movement to match the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century today, people would be marching in the streets – not to desegregate schools but to keep them open.
Unfortunately for those of us who want to see a strong and vibrant public education system, the poor people whose children are being shortchanged cannot see how the system is working against them and taking tax revenues to either promote religion or increase profits. The war against the poor is subtler than racism but every bit as pernicious… and seemingly as intractable.