The other day, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Director of State Operations, Jim Malatras, sent this letter to Chancellor Merryl Tisch, demanding that the Board of Regents answer twelve fundamental education-related questions by the end of the month. In the letter, the Governor threatened to use his control over the state budget to impose unilaterally his own education policies to break “the monopoly of public education” at a special session of the Legislature next month.
New York State United Teachers, the body that represents public school teachers for legislative and political purposes in Albany, responded to the letter with one great snit. Rather than call teachers together in any meaningful way to oppose the governor’s agenda for the special session and work to gain parental support, NYSUT preferred to do what many paper tigers do—which is to climb up on the highest horse available and issue a polemical call to a war that it cannot win. NYSUT said this to the governor:
“The governor says he wants to put students first. If that were even remotely true, he would listen carefully and act on the advice of the real experts – parents, educators and students – about what’s best for public education. Instead, New Yorkers get clueless, incendiary questions that do the bidding of New York City hedge fund billionaires who have letterhead and campaign donations, but know absolutely nothing about how public education works. If the governor wants a battle, he can take the clueless New York City billionaires. We’ll take the parents, teachers, higher education faculty and students in every ZIP code of the state.”
NYSUT’s letter is simply not a serious response to a very serious situation. It is an angry and “thought-less” response to the throw-down that the governor has tossed at teachers around the state, responding to it in a way that is familiar to almost any middle school teacher: “Nah, nah, you’re stupid and we know better.” NYSUT’s response is juvenile and its intemperate tone only demonstrates to its members that it has no idea what to do in the face of the existential threat to public education that now stares back at us in New York State.
I can assure anyone who read NYSUT’s plaintive scream that giving vent to fear by yelling “you’re stupid” at the governor is not how serious organizations shape political and education policy in New York State.
The battle has been framed. We cannot simply assert the superiority of the public education system as it exists without thinking comprehensively and strategically about what we would hold onto, what we would change, what is non-negotiable and what is negotiable.
Rather than deride the governor’s self-serving ultimatum to the Regents, I propose that we try to answer some of the questions he put to the Regents ourselves:
- What do we have to say that is a solution to Common Core other than that we “hate it?” How do we make the persuasive case that much of it is entirely inappropriate developmentally for the students we teach?
- What do we do to make sure that students with disabilities are fairly treated in a system that forces them to learn Common Core standards that may not be appropriate for the most severely disabled of them?
- Do we oppose all charters or only those charters that refuse to make their operations transparent, include special education students and ELLs and which do not counsel out their students or refuse to back-filling cohorts?
- Do we support community schools in the manner that the mayor has proposed in his “School Renewal Program” with its requirement for teachers to re-apply for their positions or do we oppose that part of the program and have an alternative to offer the children of failing schools across the City and State?
- Do we support fair funding of public schools required by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court settlement or do we have other suggestions about how to fund public schools so that every child across the state has access to a first-rate education?
- How do we promote a teacher training and certification process that ensures a diverse pool of teachers of color in our schools?
- What do we want education schools to do to help new teachers survive the terrible landscape they’re thrown into after they graduate? What skills should they be taught? How should their competence be demonstrated?
- Do we simply oppose the APPR as a state teacher evaluation system or do we oppose “junk science” altogether and have an alternative process for evaluating teachers?
- How do we make the case for due process persuasively and explain to the public how pervasive the arbitrary and capricious behavior by administrators is in our schools?
- How do we effectively protect teachers illegitimately placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve, almost all of them there because of the previous administration’s determination to close, rather than support, struggling schools and the City’s unwillingness to defray the personnel costs of the more senior members of the ATR who cannot be hired into schools because school budgets make that impossible to do?
- The Regents appointment process is a complete sham. What do we propose as a replacement? Election by district? Appointment by a panel of educators appointed jointly by the Governor, Speaker, Majority Leader of the Senate, Comptroller and AG? I don’t know the answer but almost anything has got to be better than the process we have now.
- How DO we force open the selection process used to appoint a new State Education Commissioner to replace the benighted John King?
Simply saying “public education” is a right without recognizing that many public schools are failing is a losing proposition for teachers to make to the public and to other community and parent organizations that may want to support us. We need to make an affirmative case about what we, believe works or should be tried in our schools and what doesn’t work and should be changed.
I assure you that because we believe that our cause is “righteous” or “self-evident” does not mean that anyone else thinks does. We need to make a powerful and intelligent case for what we want to do to preserve the foundational democratic aspects of public education while making clear that there we want to improve public schools while protecting teaching as a profession.
I may sound too “pragmatic” for many of you. I know why I fight and am idealistic in a way that also is clear-eyed in its recognition of the reality that now confronts us all. We are about to do battle with some of the richest and most powerful people in the state, and we need to recognize our peril and plan, strategically, to defend ourselves in a way that the public, the media and, our allies in the legislature can hear and understand. If we do not, our children will be victims, and we will perish.