Has there ever been a more energetically territorial one-man band than New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo? When New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said last month, for example, that he was closing city schools for the rest of the academic year—an entirely reasonable action—Cuomo pounced, declaring that only he would decide when the schools could close. The governor delegates nothing important.
So what is to be made of the governor’s post-coronavirus Reimagine Education Advisory Council, appointed with a flourish last week? The 19-member panel is made up of 17 education functionaries from around the state, a longtime Cuomo aide in charge, and one heavy hitter: Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers. “When we reopen schools it’s not [going to be] just about reopening as they were before,” announced Cuomo in a press release. “It’s about building back even better than before. The collective expertise and experience of this new advisory council will help answer key questions about how we can strengthen New York’s entire education system for decades to come.”
A clue as to what kind of change Cuomo envisions can be found in the makeup of the panel. The big winners seem to be politics and the status quo—to the extent that business as usual can be reconstructed, given the budget-cutting about to hit state and local governments everywhere. The loser appears to be anything resembling consequential educational reform.
The panel’s sole representative from New York City, the nation’s largest public school system, is Dennis Walcott, a competent administrator who served honorably as a caretaker schools chancellor near the end of Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Cuomo is sending a clear message that there will be no place at the table for de Blasio and the current New York City school chancellor, Richard Carranza, when it comes time to disburse Albany’s sharply diminished public-education resources.
Notably absent from the governor’s panel are school reformers—in particular, advocates for charter schools, a beacon of progress amid the mediocrity that has defined urban education in the state for decades. While school systems everywhere have been staggered by the pandemic, charter schools are showing singular flexibility in responding to the crisis. New York City’s Success Academy network, for example, has put the Department of Education to shame when it comes to remote instruction. How Cuomo hopes to “strengthen New York’s entire education system” without input from the charter sector—and minus any other significant voices for innovation—is a mystery.
Always adept at playing both sides against the middle, the governor opened hostilities with New York’s teachers’ unions last week, enlisting Bill Gates to advise on the future of remote instruction in New York. “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 [do that] with all the technology you have?” Cuomo asked.
The unions weren’t happy, clear evidence that Cuomo had achieved the desired effect. “Shocked, shocked, that this is what would be in his mind,” said Andrew Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers. But a meaningful Gates collaboration seems doubtful, given the lack of reformers on the new advisory panel—and the presence of Weingarten, a former president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers and past master at protecting her members’ perceived interests.
It wasn’t that long ago that a Cuomo–Weingarten association would have been unlikely. During his second State of the State speech, in 2012, the governor declared:
“This year, I will take a second job. Consider me the lobbyist for the students.” He followed through with some substantial strengthening of the state’s charter school statutes. Cash-flush private-sector reform advocates donated heavily to the governor’s reelection.
But the advocates have lost their enthusiasm in recent years, as has Cuomo. Charters are on their own in New York these days. The governor has done virtually nothing to slow a decline in statewide public school performance and an erosion of high school graduation standards. And he has stood by as de Blasio and Carranza stoke racial tensions in the city’s school system. And that was before the coronavirus blew up public education generally—and the tax-revenue streams that support it. With no firm end to the economy-strangling pandemic shutdown in sight, and thus no clear idea when tax collections will stabilize, Cuomo has been reduced to hectoring Washington for money.“If we don’t get federal assistance, you’re looking at education cuts of close to 50 percent in the state of New York,” he says. This scenario is not unthinkable. New York entered the current state budget cycle carrying a $6 billion deficit, most of it driven by uncontrolled health-care spending. Obviously, health-care costs have exploded over the past two months, as have demands for school aid and other local assistance. But revenue has cratered. What’s a governor to do?
Digital-driven innovation could help a lot, as Cuomo understands. “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom,” as he puts it, really is yesterday’s news. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that he intends to do anything serious about this, beyond issuing press releases. Real innovation will require more than rhetorical camouflage and protection of old policies and personnel. Unfortunately, the governor’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council seems to represent exactly that.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images