Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Who Funds New York's Funds?

From the Regents Research Fund to the Educational Fund, a small group of billionaires are having fun running education funds in New York.  According to Webster’s, a fund is “an amount of money used for a special purpose.”  Though the purposes of these funds vary, their purposes have asserted their presence in the minds of legislators across New York State. After all, money talks and writes laws.

In his recent “State of the State” speech, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed the creation of a “teacher excellence fund”, which he touts as the “first statewide teacher performance bonus program."  This program amounts to nothing more than merit pay, as teachers will be “eligible” for a $20,000 bonus if they are rated “highly effective” according to their district’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plan. Passed in 2010, APPR is a controversial teacher evaluation law that Cuomo wanted to—according to one source—“force down [New Yorkers’] throats.”  Cuomo is now proposing to force money down teachers' throats to get them to teach better. The failures of merit pay are so epic, however, that an obvious question once again arises: how can a politician be this ignorant about education? Though this question is asked so frequently these days that it has become rhetorical, its answer is elementary: follow the funding.    

Unless the teacher’s union (NYSUT) agrees, Cuomo’s merit pay program is unlikely to gain traction. However, if NYSUT does agree, who will fund it? Would the same billionaires funding the other funds suddenly fund New York’s teachers? Should this scenario come to pass, teachers could conceivably become more indebted to the likes of Bill Gates than their colleagues, much like politicians who are more indebted to plutocrats than their constituents.  

With the passage in 2011 of Cuomo’s undemocratic tax cap, tax dollars going into New York’s public schools are dwindling among growing class sizes and mandates. It may soon reach the point where public schools and teachers depend upon a few billionaires to stay afloat, the same billionaires who’ve created other funds aimed at undermining things like collective bargaining and tenure. The same billionaires who beg for lower taxes at the expense of workers' pensions. Money is power, and with more money flowing from the funds of the few, their power over public education policies will only proliferate. Look no further for examples of America’s economic inequality than our public education system.

In failing to even mention the popular uprising against the Common Core and standardized testing in his speech, Cuomo once again ignored the majority of New Yorkers in a favor of the funds of the few. Not coincidentally, this wealthy few also support using Common Core tests to evaluate teachers, and have donated heavily to Cuomo’s campaign. Hence, the majority still struggles to shout louder than the piercing rustle of private cash, with Cuomo’s political ambitions masquerading as educational ignorance. This phenomenon is not confined to education, by the way. Since the Citizens United ruling in 2010, the money of the few has overwhelmed the voices of the many across the nation.  From education to energy, women’s rights to voting rights, our democracy is under siege, with “Quid Pro Quo” ready to take its place upon the Great Seal.    
Former New York Governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once warned of “an invisible government” which owes “no responsibility to the people.” Roosevelt sought to eliminate this “unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” Andrew Cuomo should heed his predecessor’s words. The more control he surrenders to the wealthy few, the more our democratic principles suffer. Public education need not be placed at the mercy of a privileged minority.

Like it or not, we are all part of the public, and we should all have a say in how our kids are educated.  

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