Governor of the 3%

By Jane Weinkrantz



Only 3% of New York ’s children attend charter schools. Yet, that 3% has been wagging Governor Cuomo’s dog since he took office. Recently, the governor solidified his commitment to charter schools at the expense of public schools in a way that can only be interpreted as contemptuous of the many New Yorkers who send their children to, teach in and believe in our state’s public education system.  The budget Governor Cuomo signed on March 31 increases funding for charter schools, thus siphoning funds away from an already financially strapped public school system, and promotesthe growth of charter schools by addressing their facility needs, and charter schools will be eligible for pre-kindergarten funding.”

A study released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes this summer found that 29% of charter schools outperformed their public counterparts---up from 17% in 2009--- while 31% provided a worse education---down from 37% four years ago.  This is hardly a ringing statistical endorsement. The figures probably would have remained at 2009 percentages, were public schools not essentially competing with one hand behind their metaphorical back in the form of Governor Cuomo’s 2% tax cap.

At last month’s charter school rally on March 4 in Albany , Cuomo had this to say about the current state of New York education. “ You know, Albany is an industry town, and the industry is government and the government programs.  And education is treated like an industry. But what you’re saying today is it’s not an industry, and we have to change that culture. Because education is not about the districts and not about the pensions and not about the unions and not about the lobbyists and not about the PR firms – education is about the students, and the students come first.”

Besides the harsh slap in the face to teachers who don’t become teachers because of “pensions and unions,” but because they know what comes first is their love of children and knowledge and the process of introducing one to the other, nothing could be more about the industrialization of education than the reforms that Cuomo’s administration has overseen and supported in the face of obvious failure and corruption. New York’s participation in Race to the Top netted the state $700 million, but according to Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School and contributor to the Washington Post “ The New York State mathematics curriculum was developed by an organization located in Washington D.C. known as Common Core, Inc. According to reporter Jessica Bakeman of Capital New York, Common Core Inc. was awarded three large contracts from the New York State Education Department: $3,323,732 for K-2 curriculum, $2,715,958 for grades 3-5, and $8,108,919 for grades 6-12.

That is a total of  $14,148,609 — or more than $1 million per grade level project. Bakeman broke the story about the high costs of the New York State modules, which you can read here.  To put this expenditure in perspective, my school district, Rockville Centre , generally pays less than $1,000 for a grade level curriculum project (emphasis added). According to the story, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch bragged that New York State is the only state using its federal Race to the Top dollars to develop curriculum; it has spent in excess of $28 million on curriculum in English and mathematics. “

If spending tens of millions of dollars to develop a lockstep statewide curriculum is not industrialization of education, what is? Cuomo speaks as though the charter schools are folksy, grassroots schoolhouses while public schools are homogenized factories.

Yet, it is under his governance that public schools have been forced to treat children and teachers as nothing more than entries on a spreadsheet while charter school chains have been given a flexibility that is breathtaking.  Charter schools can appropriate space in New York City public schools without having to pay rent. Up to 30% of their teachers or five teachers---whichever number is lower---do not have to be certified. Students do not have to attend for a minimum 180-day school year. Charters are not required to serve free or reduced meals or any food at all.  Responsibility for charter school oversight rests only with the Board of Regents; they are not governed by Boards of Education. Charter schools are exempt from the Dignity for All Students Act and do not have to educate their pupils about bullying.   

Although required to teach special needs students and English language learners, many charter schools find ways to discourage such children from enrolling or once enrolled, discourage them from continuing. According to New York Times writer Andrea Gabor’s “Charter School Refugees” “Students with I.E.P.s also tend to leave New York City charter schools at higher rates than their general-education classmates, according to a 2014 study by the city’s Independent Budget Office.  Among special-needs students enrolled in charter schools in kindergarten in 2008, 27 percent had transferred to a traditional public school by third grade; the corresponding rate for general-education students was 17 percent.”

Gabor continues, “Some students with I.E.P.s find charters, which often foster a no-excuses culture, a poor fit, and leave voluntarily. But sometimes there’s pressure: Administrators may advise parents that the school can’t support a child’s disability, or punish kids for even the slightest disciplinary infractions. However it happens, it leads to rising special-needs populations at nearby public schools.” In fact, the $475,000 per year salaried Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy charter schools, does not consistently educate special needs students.  Al Baker and Javier C. Hernandez of The New York Times write “ Other critics note that her schools tend to serve fewer special education students and nonnative English speakers than surrounding neighborhood schools. Chancellor Farińa said on Tuesday that while some charter schools ‘do great work’ in helping children with special needs, or those with limited English proficiency, Ms. Moskowitz ‘makes it clear these are kids she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.’

Has Governor Cuomo considered what will become of special needs children if charter schools expand, as he envisions, yet are permitted to “pass” on educating these students because resources were allocated elsewhere? Apparently, not. His speech gave a shout-out to Success Academy and told them “give yourselves a round of applause”---something they were able to do because Moskowitz had closed school for the day to bring her young lobbyists to Albany, another example of how Cuomo’s darling charter schools need not play by the rules the rest of us must abide. As for Success Academy teachers, they were on hand too, though not necessarily voluntarily. According to The Nation, “The teachers and staffers…said that although they were never told they would lose their jobs if they did not attend the rally, they didn’t think they had much choice and were afraid to ask for an exception. ‘An option was not presented. The schools assigned everyone with a job, so you were either going to be an instructional coach or a bus captain,” one teacher explained. “They weren’t really asking us if that’s what we wanted to do. They were telling us that that’s what we were going to do instead of teaching for the day.’ Many charter schools like Success are nonunionized, and celebrate the fact that they can fire teachers more easily than schools with teachers’ unions can; many charter teachers have described a culture of fear resulting from job insecurity.” Perhaps this is why charters are exempt from anti-bullying laws?

In his speech, Governor Cuomo also characterized New York ’s public schools as greedy and ineffectual, telling his audience "We know that too many public schools are failing. Over 200 failing schools – 6% grade level for reading, 5% grade level for math. We need new ideas. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result. The education industry has said the same thing for decades: more money, and more money, and more money, and it will change. We spend more money per pupil than any state in the nation; we’re number 32 in results. It’s not just about putting more money in the public school system, it’s trying something new and that’s what charter schools are all about.”

The governor does not specify by what measure New York is 32 in results. (See me employing the critical thinking skills I shouldn’t actually have since I was educated in the pre-Common Core era?) Nor does he consider that, according to CNBC , New York is the state with the fourth highest cost of living. Therefore, salaries, physical plants and maintenance will always cost us more than at least 46 other states. However, if anyone is about “more money, and more money, and more money,” it is the governor himself. According to NYPIRG, 81% of Cuomo’s contributions came from donors who contributed $10,000 or more. Geoff Decker of Chalkbeat estimates that Cuomo has received over $800,000 in campaign donations from charter school supporters, including some of the same people who donate to Success Academy .  Ten Success Academy board members and two of their spouses have donated substantial funds to the governor’s war chest. Give yourselves a round of applause, indeed.

            Charter school supporters already have the governor’s attention.  They’ve spent $800,000 to get it. Public school teachers can’t buy that kind of access. They have to take it.  That’s what’s behind the protest teachers and parents have mounted for April 28 at a speech the Governor is to give to Suffolk County Democrats in Holbrook, Long Island.  It’s also the motivation for another protest scheduled for May 4 in Lake Placid where Cuomo is being honored by his hedge fund, charter school friends.   

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