It’s been five years since Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed himself the political patron of New York’s 2.7 million public school students, thereby placing himself in the crosshairs of the state’s public-education establishment. “This year, I will take a second job,” he announced in his 2012 State of the State message. “Consider me the lobbyist for the student. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.”
It was a remarkable declaration for any ambitious Democrat, let alone the functional head of the party in a bedrock Democratic state like New York. Cuomo has paid a price for this, and he continues to do so. Most New York politicians reflexively conflate what’s best for education with what’s best for teachers’ unions and the bureaucrats who support them. Not by accident, students virtually always become an afterthought.
The state’s unions, particularly New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), recognized Cuomo’s declaration as a sharp departure from business as usual—which is the timely transfer of money from taxpayers to teachers, with nothing much expected in return. Union reaction was immediate and, to a considerable degree, successful. NYSUT, an enthusiastic participant in the 2014 primary-election effort to deny Cuomo a second term, worked with New York City’s United Federation of Teachers to gut an ambitious, Cuomo-backed teacher-evaluation protocol. Now the two unions want to dismantle Cuomo’s so-far startlingly successful charter-school program during the current legislative session. The challenge represents a profound test of the governor’s stamina.
All in all, then, the unions gave better than they got. Cuomo hasn’t been talking much lately about lobbying for students. But too much is never enough for NYSUT: there is money on the table as negotiations proceed on the state budget, and the union means to siphon up every loose nickel, while conceding nothing in return. To that end, the Alliance for Quality Education—a NYSUT-funded lobbying group—is sponsoring marches and a social-media campaign roundly denouncing both Cuomo and President Trump for declaring that students should come first.
“Trump and Cuomo use the same talking points, to sell the same policies, attacking public schools,” says AQE. “We’re showing a similarity between what the governor has said over time, [and] what Donald Trump is saying now.” Trump, of course, is the bogyman of the moment in New York politics, and if the president and the governor (a vocal Trump critic) are on the same school-policy page—kids before bureaucrats—well, imagine the infamy.
But don’t be fooled. It’s all about the money. The union freely concedes that Cuomo has “put more funding in education than the last four governors”—New York has the best-funded public schools in the country—but it also complains that he has “systematically [failed] to provide hundreds of thousands of children with the educational opportunities that is [sic] their constitutional right.” In fact, Cuomo has proposed a $961 million increase in school spending for the fiscal year beginning April 1, bringing total education aid to $25.6 billion—up 3.9 percent from the current budget, or nearly twice the rate of inflation. That’s an impressive sum, but it’s dwarfed by what NYSUT and its allies are demanding: a $4.3 billion increase, or roughly 20 percent, to $29.9 billion.
New York has spent more per pupil on public education than any other state for decades now. The Census Bureau reports that New York spent $19,818 per student on average in 2013, the last year for which figures are available, substantially topping runners-up Alaska ($18,175), New Jersey ($17,572), and Connecticut ($16,631.) The national average was just $10,700.
Not all of New York’s school money came from Albany, true. School spending is largely locally funded in the Empire State. In fact, state aid constitutes slightly less than 40 percent of New York City’s projected $24.3 billion school budget, with the rest coming principally from commercial real-estate taxes. (It’s instructive that the 40 percent increase in the city’s school budget since Mayor de Blasio took office coincided with its current real-estate boom, though clearly the huge hike was driven by the United Federation of Teachers’ cozy relationship with City Hall.)
Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers also pay for the nation’s highest teacher salaries, as well as its lushest school-employee benefits packages. Only eight states have lower pupil-teacher ratios than New York, which might be expected given the spending disparities. But it turns out that the state ranks only slightly below the national average in class-size averages for both elementary and secondary schools—suggesting that many New York teachers manage to avoid classroom duty. The extra money apparently evaporates before it reaches the instructional level.
Certainly classroom results demonstrate that New York isn’t getting much bang for all those extra schoolhouse bucks. New York students perform well below average on the SATs. Their performance is only middling on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests scores, and the state’s high school graduation rate, while above average, substantially trails those of other major states. And even here, there is less than meets the eye: a recent study suggests that only one-third of New York City high school grads are prepared for college work.
Money, clearly, isn’t everything that the unions make it out to be. That’s not surprising, given the energy they also devote to fighting more demanding teaching standards, more stringent performance evaluation, and public-education reform generally. That Governor Cuomo and President Trump are being targeted for supporting reform speaks well for both men.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images