Governor Cuomo Pretends to Improve Schools; New York Times Condemns His Strategy

If you look carefully at the education crisis in the United States, here is what you will see. Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich. This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap. A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007, before the great recession. Federal funding remains low for crucial programs like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; while it was promised that 40 percent of IDEA’s cost would be covered by the federal government, Congress now funds less than 20 percent.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states by blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, and pushing privatization.

This situation is widespread across the states—in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Kansas, Florida and 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 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.

Believing as I do that our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the schools of our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools, or privatizing them, I was encouraged [last] Monday when the New York Times editorial board took on Governor Cuomo in a serious analysis of "The Central Crisis in New York Education." The newspaper’s editors challenge Cuomo “to move beyond peripheral concerns and political score-settling,.. and go to the heart of the matter,” by “confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.” The editors remember that in 2007, New York adopted a new school funding formula to add $7 billion per year to invest in quality programs and to equalize the state’s investment by assisting school districts with less capacity to raise local funds. “That promise evaporated in the recession, spawning two lawsuits aimed at forcing the state to honor it.” The Times editors also remind us that in 2011, New York enacted a statewide cap on what local school districts can raise through local property taxes. Such caps leave school districts without anywhere to turn in hard times.

The editors of the Times challenge Cuomo’s strategy of blaming teachers rather than addressing the real issues: “The Cuomo administration seemed not to acknowledge these issues in a letter last month to the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and the commissioner of education in which it promised ‘an aggressive legislative package’ to improve education in the state,” including “strengthening the teacher evaluation system, improving the process for removing low-performing teachers and improving teacher training.”

Like Governor Cuomo, our society has chosen policies that assume we can improve public schools without spending much money. If only the teachers would work harder and smarter and we could break the unions so that teachers would cost less, then we could have our tax cuts and everything would still be alright.

The problem is that state budgets and school finance and local tax caps have real consequences. When my children were young and in school and our school levies would fail, I learned in the most personal way what gets cut when school funding drops. The school nurses started covering several buildings each day, school librarians were replaced by part time aides, gifted programs were axed, and class size went over thirty.  Two recent news articles have reminded me that this same arithmetic still operates when states invest less and local districts are bound by property tax freezes.

  • The day after Christmas, the NY Times published "Little College Guidance: 500 High School Students Per Counselor." The reporter, Elizabeth Harris, describes a shocking shortage of guidance counselors across America’s public high schools. Writing about the counselors who write college recommendations and put together students’ college application packets, Harris explains, “While small private schools can often afford to provide their students with tremendous hand-holding, large public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors. Nationally, that ratio is nearly 500 to 1, a proportion experts say has remained virtually unchanged for more than 10 years… ‘It’s a huge problem, massive,’ said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies school counseling. ‘Counseling is seen as an extra layer, a luxury.  If I’m a school leader and I’m trying to lower class size, what’s 50 more kids on your caseload?'”  Harris reports that one in five U.S. public high schools has no guidance counselor at all.

  • Last weekend Valerie Strauss published a guest column from Ellie Herman, a teacher and writer who has spent the past year visiting and observing public schools. In this column Herman describes “the most important thing I’ve learned:  Teachers in high-poverty communities need professional working conditions. If they do not have professional working conditions, we will never be able to narrow the achievement gap between children of color in generational poverty and their more affluent white peers, who often are showered with opportunity and enrichment from the time they are born… Teaching in high-poverty communities is different than teaching in more affluent communities. It should be regarded as a specialty because of its complexity and depth.” What kind of working conditions is Herman describing? She writes: “Teachers in high-poverty communities need the time to meet the needs of students. It is just simply unacceptable to pack 35-50 students into a classroom in a high-poverty community and then expect those teachers to teach five to six classes per day, sometimes with after-school activities tacked on as well....Teachers in high-poverty communities need time to grade and read work carefully… A teacher with 150-200 students simply does not have time to do this work—or if they do the work well on top of an 8-10 hour day on their feet managing a high-needs classroom, they will burn out.”

It would be wonderful to think that Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Snyder of Michigan and Governor Brownback of Kansas were thoughtfully considering the needs of the school teachers in  New York City, Detroit, and Kansas City.  I am pleased at least to see the Times editorial board recommending that the Governor of New York develop a strategy based on investing in and supporting public education instead of punishing teachers. We need to consider the psychological, social, and ethical impact of school finance from the point of view of the teachers and students whose lives are shaped by governors and state legislators.

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