A classroom of Bronx high school students was discussing John Steinbeck’s literary classic Of Mice and Men last week when a gray-haired, dark-suited visitor chimed in with the perspective of an extra 50 years.
“One of the messages there is that things will work out,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as students gawked. “That there’s still problems around, not everybody’s perfect, we still have the same battles to fight, we’re better today then we were then.
“But we still have a long ways to go.”
In short: You win some, you lose some.
A week earlier, in his State of the City speech, the mayor had made similar comments about his decade-long effort to overhaul the city’s labyrinthine school system. He’s had some successes and some failures, but in the long run, graduation rates and student achievement are up across the city, he said.
Bloomberg is proud of his education record, even if recent polling shows the majority of New Yorkers don’t think the schools are any better under his leadership. Ten years into his term, he said the reforms were halfway there.
Yet the mayor wasn’t the only one promising to shake up education in New York. In his State of the State address a week earlier—without a mention of the mayor’s quest in the state’s largest school system—Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his next great feat of strength would be fixing the schools.
New York is first in the nation in education spending and only 38th in achievement, the governor said—although a few teacher-bloggers took issue with that statistic, noting a recent American Legislative Exchange Council report that showed New York fifth in the country in student performance.
Cuomo vowed to create a commission to examine accountability and achievement in the school system, and gave school districts and union officials a year to negotiate a new teacher evaluation system or have one forced upon them.
Bloomberg, who got control of New York City’s schools in 2003, has already done all that—and has the scars to show for it. The evaluation system he fought hard for in 2010 has ground to a stalemate. The head of the teachers’ union said Bloomberg is living in a fantasy world; Bloomberg used an expletive to the New York Post’s editorial board to describe the union’s stand on evaluations.
Against that backdrop, Cuomo brings new life—and a cleaner slate—to the effort.
“It was great to hear Governor Cuomo address teacher evaluations in his state budget presentation,” the mayor said in the Bronx. “The governor has made it clear that he is determined to be a champion for our students, that he will not allow the teachers’ union to block teacher evaluation systems across the state.”
Aides to both men recognize that their bosses’ new alignment on education could be fruitful—even as the two remain frosty in person and at odds over other policy issues. Both say they want to reform an unaccountable system and plow through the bureaucracy that stands in their way. And both want better outcomes for more students, for less money.
“I commend Mayor Bloomberg for outlining a positive vision for New York City’s future and the most important part of building that future, our students,” Cuomo said in a statement after the mayor’s State of the City address. “The mayor and I agree that this starts with implementing a teacher evaluation system that holds teachers accountable for their performance. I look forward to working together.”
Education insiders hope the parallel efforts of the mayor and governor will bring real progress—but scoff at the idea that they could coordinate.
“They’re not working together at all,” said one insider. “It’s not working. They’re just incapable of cooperating with each other.”
Working independently, though, Cuomo and Bloomberg may bring a good-cop, bad-cop dynamic to their common purpose of reforming schools: Cuomo is the dealmaker who spent his first year bridging divides, while Bloomberg is entrenched on one side of the debate.
“It’s helpful to the governor to have the mayor out there on the education front, because it lets him be the lightning rod,” said someone who works with both men. “The teachers, they’re in a two-front war.”
“It is not about the adults, it’s about the children,” Cuomo said in his Martin Luther King Day speech. “The children come first, the students’ rights and the students’ ability come first, and that’s what we’re going to make happen in the state of New York.”
Still, Cuomo has not been as forceful a critic of teachers’ unions as Bloomberg. He broadly decries the educational bureaucracy, lumping teachers in with superintendents, principals and even bus drivers, who spend millions lobbying state government while leaving students out in the cold.
He has not, though, weighed in on Bloomberg’s more controversial policies, like closing failing schools and imposing new charter schools in existing public school buildings.
This hasn’t escaped the unions’ notice. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who represents the city’s 200,000-strong teaching workforce, says the 2002 law granting Bloomberg control over the education system should be reexamined, and possibly revoked. But he couldn’t find much to criticize in Cuomo’s approach.
“What the governor has said at this point is he wants to get all different stakeholders together, including educational experts, to look at educational issues,” Mulgrew said. “So they would never come up and say, ‘Let’s do individual merit pay,’ because they know that hurts kids.”
He said, “Over here, you have the mayor, who says, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and he proposes it’s a great thing, when any researcher will tell you it doesn’t work. I think we need real facts and research, not rhetoric.”
And while Mulgrew doesn’t speak for every New York teacher—one teacher said, “I trust Mulgrew about 1 percent more than I trust Bloomberg, which is to say I trust Mulgrew 1 percent”—the union chief was articulating a common refrain among educators and legislators: that the intervention of the fresh-faced and uncannily effective Cuomo could help offset years of arm-twisting and bullying by the Bloomberg administration.
Cuomo is said to have a far closer relationship with Mulgrew than with Richard Iannuzzi, president of the statewide New York State United Teachers. The UFT is the largest component of NYSUT, giving Cuomo the ability to pressure the statewide union from inside and out.
“Cuomo’s always calling Iannuzzi and putting the fear of Cuomo into him,” as one insider put it.
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Education Committee, said that after years of fighting and arguing, she and her colleagues are looking forward to some consensus on education policy in the state.
“It can be very frustrating,” she said. “But I actually think the governor taking on a leadership role in a way that other governors never did, I think in the long run may help alleviate some of the mayor’s frustrations.”
One prominent education figure predicted trouble ahead for Cuomo as he continues down this path, however, especially if it means wading into disputes between local school districts and their unions.
“It’s early in the governor’s tenure,” the source said. “He’s had a lot of these commissions. Right? He had a mandate-relief commission. Do we have any mandate relief? When the basic principle [is] that every locality has to collective-bargain, and you have a governor that doesn’t want to instigate a war against collective bargaining, you’re only going so far.”
One fundamental difference stands between how Bloomberg and Cuomo have tackled education: The mayor demanded direct control of the city’s schools, saying it was the only way to bring change. Cuomo has not done the same for the state.
NYSUT’s Iannuzzi, however, said the state Education Department and the Board of Regents, the two agencies that control education policy in New York, are so out of touch that Cuomo should consider some form of gubernatorial control.
NYSUT is currently suing the Board of Regents over the implementation of the 2010 law that establishes a new teacher evaluation system. Cuomo has said the lawsuit must be dropped before local school districts can receive their state aid.
But despite his tough talk, Iannuzzi said he would prefer an education department run by Cuomo to the current system, where Assembly Democrats appoint the regents, who in turn appoint the education commissioner.
“While I’ve never been a supporter of any governor controlling education in New York State,” Iannuzzi said, “I have to say maybe it’s time to revisit whether there’s a real need for the Board of Regents.”
Some Albany insiders speculate Cuomo could be seeking more power over education policy, pointing to the as-yet-unnamed committee that will examine education statewide. But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver won’t easily give up his conference’s responsibility in choosing the regents.
Cuomo holds heavy sway over education through the budget. But the possibility of acquiring more power could hold promise for Cuomo, a renowned micromanager who likes playing it close to the vest.
“There’s a real good argument for gubernatorial control of state education policy,” said one Albany insider not in Cuomo’s circle. “Just like there’s a real good argument for mayoral control of city education policy.”
But Bloomberg wouldn’t say whether he thinks Cuomo should ape his style and grab full control of education in New York State.
“Typically, states delegate down to the local level,” the mayor said. “He understands the politics of Albany. He’s the governor, and I support him. I think that we’ve shown in New York City phenomenal progress. But I don’t think anyone seriously wants to change the system.”
IT’S ABOUT THE MONEY
At the end of this rainbow of battles sits a pot of gold: over $1 billion sitting on the table, just waiting to be spent on salaries and data systems and test prep and all the things the governor derides as the “business of education.”
And there it will sit until a teacher evaluation system is put in place.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that without a teacher evaluation system, New York could lose $700 million in federal Race to the Top money. On top of that, Cuomo says he will withhold a promised 4 percent increase in state education spending to school districts, or around $800 million, if the union and the state Education Department fail to reach a deal on the evaluations.
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch says without an adequate evaluation system, all the reforms the governor wants are dead in the water.
“You cannot improve educational outcomes without focusing on the quality of teaching,” Tisch said. “That’s the beginning, middle and end of that story.”
Tisch, a member of one of the state’s wealthiest families and a sometime ally of Bloomberg’s who is said to harbor political ambitions of her own, says Cuomo is right to get involved in the thorny issue of education reform—but will need to broaden his scope if he really wants to be effective.
“Pick your battles,” she said. “I would like to pick a battle over evaluations, I would like to pick a battle over the data system, I would like to pick a battle [over] the implementation of common core standards, and I sure as heck would like to pick a battle [over] improving the quality of testing. If [Cuomo] can take on those four things, it will really lay the foundation for improving the system.”
Many observers say Cuomo is likely to be more successful in his efforts to wring results out of the education system than the mayor has been over the last decade, thanks to his enormous political capital and sky-high approval ratings. But that’s not to suggest they don’t have the same goal: to siphon power away from the teachers’ union and consolidate more control in their own offices.
“They’re saying the same thing,” said Steve Sanders, a lobbyist and former chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “I think the governor is using softer, more generalized language. The mayor, on the other hand, has had ten years of conflict with the UFT, and he’s not of the mind to mince words. He’s in his last term, and I think from his point of view, he’s had it.”
Cuomo has shown no reluctance to encroach on Bloomberg’s turf, whether by renegotiating a New York City taxi bill or planning the nation’s largest convention center in Queens. Now he is using his vise grip on state education aid to get Bloomberg and the teachers’ union back to the negotiating table—with all the pitfalls that come with it.
“It’s a morass; it’s complicated,” Sanders said. “It’s not really a place for a governor to be.”
The good-cop, bad-cop dynamic gives Cuomo more room than Bloomberg to maneuver. Insiders speculate he could even use his friendly relationship with Mulgrew to get what he wants from NYSUT, then sit on his hands when Bloomberg and Mulgrew come to blows.
No one knows how long Cuomo and Bloomberg will remain allies—not even within the Capitol and City Hall. Education reformers hope to make the most of it while they can, because the good-cop, bad-cop dynamic may go only so far.
It’s up to Cuomo whether he wants to stay a good cop as well—or whether to let the bad cop walk a beat on his own.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Andrew J. Hawkins, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Board Of Regents, Bronx, Cathy Nolan, charter schools, Dick Ianuzzi, Jon Steinback, Merryl Tisch, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Mulgrew, NYSUT, Of Mice and Men, Race to the Top, Shelly Silver, State of the City, State of the State, Steve Sanders, UFT
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