The Teachers vs. the Governor

Earlier this week, the state teachers’ union joined forces with the powerful city teachers union to take Governor Andrew Cuomo with a multi-million dollar ad campaign. The classic attack ad accuses Cuomo of wanting to increase high-stakes testing, privatize classrooms, and divert money away from public schools by giving tax breaks to the wealthy.

This is just the latest outburst in a long line of skirmishes between the governor and teachers unions—the United Federation of Teachers in the City, and the state teachers’ Union — and strategically timed to air as New York students sit down to take statewide tests.

Cuomo has supported increasing the number of charter schools, and famously attended a rally organized by Success Academy C.E.O. Eva Moskowitz.  He has also criticized the teacher grading system as too lenient, and supported statewide testing of Common Core standards. Meanwhile, a growing number of parents have chosen to “opt out” of letting their children sit for those tests.

To make sense of the ongoing tension between Cuomo and the unions, New York City Lens turned to Aaron Pallas, a Professor of Sociology and Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, who studies school and teacher accountability systems, and sorting processes in schools.

What is the crux of the ideological difference between Cuomo and the teachers unions?

A big part of it has to do with teacher evaluations. Back in January when the governor released his proposal for what he wanted to get out of the legislature for this cycle, there are some key things that he wanted. One was increasing the role that standardized tests play in the evaluation of teachers from the current 20 percent to 50 percent. Also, reducing the role that school principals play in evaluation teachers. The governor made it clear that he thought that principals were being too soft on their own teachers, and so he called for having independent observers come in and for their ratings to count for more than the school principals.

He also wanted to make the probationary period longer so that teachers would not get tenure as quickly as they currently do under state law, and also to make it easier to dismiss teachers who were rated ineffective.

So teachers and their unions viewed this as an attack on teachers rather than thinking about a broader way of strengthening public education in the state, including things like funding schools in the way that the state Supreme Court has held the state government should.

The governor has focused the blame on teachers and teachers, not surprisingly, think that they don’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame about whatever is going wrong in public education in New York State.

Can you talk a little bit about the opt-out movement, and the kind of repercussions that it might have?

Opting out is definitely a new thing. It may well have been the case that parents in the past have, in isolation, chosen not to have their children sit for state tests. But the numbers that are being cited, going from roughly fifty thousand children being opted out last year to perhaps 180 thousand this year suggests there’s some new momentum to this movement.

And it’s localized too.  You can see that opting out is much more common in Long Island, for example, than in many other parts of the state. And I think it’s been organized in a way to allow parents collectively to express their unhappiness with both the nature of the specific assessments, as well as the broader concern that test preparation and the high stakes associated with these tests are driving what’s happening in children’s classrooms.

If enough opt out and the movement gains momentum, what’s the end game?

I don’t think anyone knows. Just in the past two days or so, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has said that if too much opting out occurs in a state, the Feds might have to intervene. No one knows what that means. The state and some districts are using that as a threat to try to persuade parents to not opt out—the possibility that federal funds might be revoked if fewer than 95 percent of the eligible children sit for the test. But it’s really hard to imagine the federal government or the state penalizing kids because their parents are doing what’s legal, because opting out is in New York at least certainly legal.

What kind of precedence is there for teachers unions to run advertisements like the ones that we’re seeing this week?

Certainly in New York City, you don’t have to go far back to see the local teachers unions running ads very critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example. So I think it’s not unusual for unions to take on particular political figures who have power, and who are championing policies that the unions think are not in their members’ interests.

Are these ads are going to hurt Cuomo?

I think the bigger problem for Cuomo are the political polling numbers that indicate that there’s just not much support for his education policies. The fact is, he has enough power to be able to push his agenda. This opting out is a very interesting grass roots resistance to some part of that agenda. Even within the State Education Department, a very interesting development just in the last day is, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, is calling for a one-year delay in implementing the new teacher evaluation system that the legislature approved at the beginning of this month, which the governor has recommended. Chancellor Tisch doesn’t think it’s possible to get this done by November, which is what the law calls for, and the governor’s personal counsel saying this is the law, the State has to comply.  Yes there’s room for some exceptions in isolated circumstances, but those have to be exceptions. There is no wiggle room regarding implementation. And it’s really the first public division that I’ve seen between the governor and Merryl Tisch, who ordinarily are on the same page. So it is very interesting that she is raising this issue at this time, and we’ll have to see in the next few days what comes of it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity