Beware The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s False Face On Education

The saying “Beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is often, erroneously, cited to Aesop; it originates in the New Testament in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”. No matter who first provided the advice, it remains timeless in its cautionary value. In today’s political climate, it is especially important that we watch out for these wolves hidden in the skins of sheep, for their rhetoric may be the undoing of the last hundred-plus years of progressive changes; their agendas for personal gain may come at a great price to the public. In terms of Democrats especially, we should beware of false progressives who are inwardly ravenous regressive career politicians…specifically beware Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State.

There are few politicians as ravenous for self-serving politics as Governor Cuomo, a self-styled champion for the children of New York who in fact is a bought and owned pawn of the privatization “School Reform” movement. A man whose actions are so motivated by personal politics that he would veto his own bill once he had secured re-election; a man whose actions and rhetoric as so divorced that he can accede the practice of creaming in charter schools and suggest raising the cap on them in the same administration; a man whose ambition for national office is so insatiable that he will hop on any bandwagon to appear in tune. The true Andrew Cuomo is as poor a public servant as he is a savvy political manipulator. A man willing to play political games with the students of New York State, all the while claiming to have their best interests in mind, without nary setting foot in a classroom as governor, has little right to claim that he knows what happens in classrooms.

Of course, Cuomo wraps himself in a progressive resume that upon close inspection reveals sharp wolf’s teeth beneath a wool facade; every step of his public career is rife with the hints of nepotism, dirty dealings, and political favoritism. Chairing the Homeless Commission in New York City for three years, following very little experience in the field, Cuomo held a key position in providing policy that well addressed being homeless but not the causal factors of homelessness in forming New York City’s Department of Homeless Services. This segued to his serving in the Clinton Administration, ultimately, as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development where he not only contributed to the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis by urging Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to buy out loans, but also was accused on the Senate floor for racism and for being a dirty political player. As Attorney General of New York with a nominally scandal free tenure, Cuomo moved on to securing the nomination for Governor under dubious circumstances. Interceding on behalf of Cuomo, the Obama Administration leaned on sitting Governor David A. Patterson not to oppose the “popular New York Attorney General”.

Since then, Andrew Cuomo has enjoyed the distinction of being the New York Governor who passed Marriage Equality; though this was more zeitgeist than anything else. Had he vetoed the Equality bill, he would never be re-elected in New York as a Democrat. As Governor, he continues to pursue the magnanimous sounding school reform and school choice movements. His ascent, marred with dirty doings and undue appointments is explained easily by his lineage; he is the son of New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whose three terms in office certainly provided for a gilded path to public service for his son. Andrew’s accomplishments most certainly ride piggybacked on the access provided by Mario.

At first glance, the Governor’s record speaks to his rhetoric, but that second glance shows very little in terms of working up the ladder. For a man appointed to the President’s cabinet in his 30’s, his reported four steps up to the bar exam don’t do much to inspire the vetting required for that position. For a man so completely certain about his “on-time budgets” that he delivers like Martin Luther on the doors of the State Legislature, his role in the near financial collapse of the entire country is certainly glossed over, and for a so-called champion of the students of the State of New York, his rushed adoption of the Common Core State Standards and over reliance on standardized testing show very little in terms of understanding the educational needs of children. If his policies on the standards of education illustrate how out of touch he is with the needs of students, his actions against student’s greatest professional advocates–teachers–paint them in living color.

The reality of the matter is that Cuomo hasn’t made any positive policy in terms of education or dealing with teachers, and his treatment of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), particularly New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is a perfect example of the wolf showing his fangs. His latest series of snarls, snaps, and barks have been prompted by the Unions’ refusal to back him in his latest election–as if he’d somehow garnered favor with teachers by comparing them to sexual predators and characterizing them as  self-interested strains on the system. He has shown very little respect for his mother’s profession in his tenure, despite what he tells the press.

While Cuomo claims that teacher pensions are making the education system bankrupt, his law that requires the Department of Education to house or foot the bill for charter school rent takes money literally out of the budgets of public schools in New York. The Governor claims that New York’s students are failing the standardized exams, it was his administrations call to raise the cut scores to take students in advanced programs and put them in the “approaching grade level” strata of a Level 2 grade . His plans to put under serviced, over populated schools on a list of “failing schools” to be replaced with charters rather than creating smaller public schools, better serviced, with greater resources shows how much little he’s willing to invest in public education.

His desire to set a minimum number of teachers to be fired yearly shows that he doesn’t believe in a truly inspiring education system and his thought processes on merit pay–a system proven in business to kill collaboration and creativity–in the classroom shows how little he knows about the culture of teaching. His idea to have top college students graduate tuition free if they promise to teach in New York for five years echo the failed philosophy of Teach For America that drive home this false notion that “teaching is something you do before you start your career”. Cuomo’s attack on due process and tenure for teachers shows exactly how much he fears professional advocacy against his privatization agenda.

Its become trite to compare today’s politics to Orwell’s 1984, but in a world where No Child Left Behind has in fact left many children behind, where Education Reform aims to retard progress, where the Race to the Top has brought education down, and where education has become reduced to programming, it is hard not to think of Big Brother watching through the SmartBoards. Soon, he’ll be teaching through them, with ruler wielding enforcers circulating classrooms if movers and shakers like Andrew Cuomo continue to smile in the face of the electorate and lie about their intentions with the public school system. This false face on education is dangerous it masks an agenda that includes a ” teacher evaluation system” that more resembles witch trials and student assessments that regularly force children to have emotional breakdowns in classrooms and bring the kind of stress graduate students experience to elementary school kids.

Whether it has been the arbitrary lifting of cut scores after tests have been taken or the fact that the tests have ben poorly written, the over use of standardized exams to measure teacher effectiveness has done no favors to the state of education in New York. If one needs to understand how utterly useless the exams can be, try this except, which the state had to roll back and apologize for. How might a test containing questions conjecturing what a Moose thought about a Pineapple’s statements have any value in measuring student achievement or teacher effectiveness. The Hare and the Pineapple is a common example of exactly how poorly these tests are being written. However, when 8th graders took the test it isn’t as bad as when first time test takers, English Language Learners and Special Education Students, are cracking towards the end of 3rd grade.

Many teachers are reporting that children as young as 8 and 9 years old have to be removed from testing locations and brought to guidance councilors to be calmed down because there is so much riding on the tests. Students will have a much more to cry about as New York starts to roll out the 3-8 PARCC exams, which will be 5-6 hours long and administered on computers. The state gives no inkling of what will be on the test or which skills will be focused upon, so students are left to kill-and-drill test prep for a large portion of the year (if not all year), and are immediately scared into submission by the high stakes of the test. For teachers, the stakes are also high, especially now, since the ability of students to handle several hours long examinations that are developmentally inappropriate may end up counting for 50% of their effectiveness in the APPR evaluations. Worse yet, recent studies that show that these tests don’t even measure very much learning or teaching, so the Governor’s suggested change to evaluations is essentially spiteful and baseless. Even Texas is rolling back its reliance on high stakes testing.

The Governor’s evaluation system has been failed in philosophy and application from the start, so it is no surprise that his “refining” of it makes it a more oppressive tool rather than a more diagnostic one. From first blush of its introduction by Education Commissioner John King illustrated the Governor’s new APPR teacher evaluation plans as “building the airplane mid-air,” as if it was some grand notion of sound planning. This was one of the early signs of the horrors to be visited upon New York’s students, parents, and teachers. The language behind building in an airplane in the air, besides being horrifying, is a clear sign of a lack of planning. The state had no method for calculating the information they planned on using to assess teachers–nor had they ever collected such data. In many cases, the tests being administered for “value added” had not been written or taken by any students.

There is not a single person on Earth who would want to be in an airplane being built in the air, why should this metaphor serve to illustrate anything that impacts the state’s children? The teacher evaluation system was as doomed to fail as a place being built midair was doomed to crash. King in general is a damning appointment as Commissioner–the husband of a publishing company researcher, whose children attend charter schools–clearly has some skin in the privatization of public schools. We would do well to scrutinize who replaces King, once he fully transitions into the Federal Department of Education, where he will undoubtedly continue their work of promoting the privatization of public education in economically disadvantaged communities, pushing the Common Core, and exalting the further use of developmentally inappropriate standardized exams. Perhaps, Mr. Cuomo will appoint Eva Moskowitz next.

During the Governor’s re-election campaign he proudly stated his aims to demolish the “monopoly” of public education with his doomed evaluation system. This statement was as shocking as it was outlandish. There is no monopoly on education and never has been. People have the ability to move to different school districts and locations, and though this is a dramatic undertaking, if a school system is poor enough people will move from it (extreme circumstances not withstanding). Additionally, public schools don’t go out of their way to bankrupt private schools–or to even balk them. Provided students are acceptable to these institutions and parents can secure tuition, there is no barrier in sending children there.

Private schools have existed before public ones, and thrive even today. The idea that public schools somehow have a monopoly over the education of children is not unlike stating that the police have the monopoly over law enforcement or that that the fire department has the monopoly over ladders and hoses. To further extend the notion, Cuomo’s introduction of tax credits could be equally compared to other municipal institutions. Would he be so quick to advocate for a tax credit for fire fighters, police officers, or the Metropolitan Transit Authority? Of course not, because these are vital public utilities just as public education is.

The monopoly statement, under thoughtful scrutiny points the finger back at Cuomo and his motivations–ultimately he is in charge of state education as the executive of New York. If we were to follow his preposterous logic that there is a monopoly of public education, he would be the CEO. What trust could we place in him to dismantle it without gain of any sort? It is clear that the Governor’s approach to evaluation of teachers and students isn’t to build professionals up with quality supervision and development plans but rather to create the opportunity for multiple “gotcha!” moments at the detriment to innovative (or even apt) pedagogy. His approach to funding schools is about under resourcing them as much as possible so that his political bankrollers can gain untold millions–billions–of dollars.

Mr. Cuomo never discusses the good work that happens in schools. Never do you hear the Governor talk about the work he’s seen students attempt, the fruit of their labors in learning. Neither do you hear of his applause for teachers–in charters or otherwise–because this champion of education does not bother to go to schools. He doesn’t know what students are experiencing, he hasn’t seen teachers pushing carts from room to room, or small group academic interventions happening in hallways. The system under his watch is impoverished, yet it is a monopoly sucking dollars away from students.

The Governor never addresses income inequality, or problems with tax distribution. He wrongly quotes New York’s student budget as among the highest in the nation, but does little describe the thousands of dollars difference between the most affluent students in the state and the neediest. No. Only that public schools are a monopoly–perhaps his definition comes from playing the board game. If so, we can only hope he lands on “go to jail” for any misappropriations of funds from Hurricane Sandy Relief (such as running “New York, New York” ads instead of helping people rebuild their homes) or failing to appropriately fund New York City’s schools by over a billion dollars.

While he’s wrapped himself in the colors of the Democrat Party–the party of Unions, Progressives, Liberals, and Social Reforms–Cuomo’s actions are those by and large that of a Republican–espousing privatization, and union breaking . His actions against not just Teacher’s Unions, but all Professionals and their Unions place him in a key position to work the middle in a national election–a position the Governor Cuomo aches to be in. As a State we cannot be fooled by his flawed rhetoric. We need more people standing with the teachers and their Unions. We need more parents opting their children out of the state assessments. We need communities to advocate for a return to local control. We need the electorate to demand the removal of the Common Core Standards. We should not trust this wolf nor be fooled by his disguise, though it is far from sheepish. He boldly states exactly how he wants to destroy public education and disservice the students of New York and frames it in a way that pulls the wool over the public’s eyes. We should beware this false prophet as all he looks to deliver are profits for charter networks and private interests looking to ravenously consume the future of our state’s children as he makes a charge for the White House.

Brandon Melendez is a New York City Educator who advocates for strong Public Education systems, local community control of schools, and a renewed approach to the definition of education in America. He is a contributor to Polite on Society as well as the Editor-in-Chief at Maglomaniac where his column Irate Educator addresses education issues in the classroom and in politics.


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