Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Prince of Common Core

According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Common Core standards have caused “massive confusion, massive anxiety, and massive chaos” throughout the state. In the same interview, the self-anointed “lobbyist for the students” also bizarrely implied that he’s ready to pick up a placard and join parent protests against the same standards he recently called “state of the art.” Cuomo is clearly conflicted over Common Core, and his foot sinks deeper into his mouth whenever he says anything about education these days.  The governor’s own Common Core panel has so far only stoked this confusion, soliciting from speakers ways to merely improve public opinion on the flawed standards.     

Sealed in the same glossy package, Common Core relies on high-stakes tests to bring home the bacon and fry it in the pan. Reformers have used these tests to both punish and profit from the public, enforcing emotional and financial consequences in the name of higher standards.  As a result, if Cuomo’s own teacher evaluation law (APPR) is to have any teeth, Cuomo needs Common Core as much as Common Core needs him. In another ambiguous utterance, the governor recently chastised the Board of Regents after they proposed allowing teachers to appeal any dismissals related to Common Core’s implementation. In other words, the union-busting Cuomo is okay with Common Core as long as some teachers get fired. What Cuomo doesn’t know, or want to admit, is that Common Core withers and dies without high-stakes tests feeding its fetid soil, the same high-stakes tests at the vanguard of his APPR.

In a 2011 letter to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Cuomo urged the adoption of a teacher evaluation plan that he said would be the “building blocks to greater performance in our education system.” As Cuomo’s plan runs riot throughout the state, however, the governor now says he has “nothing to do with” education in New York. Cuomo’s equivocation over Common Core should remind New Yorkers of another classic equivocator, his father and former New York governor Mario Cuomo.

Dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson", Mario Cuomo could never make up his mind about running for president, agonizing publicly over the pros and cons of a presidential bid. While the elder Cuomo pondered his power, Prince Andrew's ambitions simmered.  Now, similar to his father’s vacillation over seeking higher office, Cuomo waffles over Common Core, exhibiting the contradictory tendencies of his father. The difference, however, is that Cuomo’s indecision is directly affecting students, parents, and teachers on a daily basis. His refusal to push for a pause in high-stakes testing while only vaguely criticizing Common Core's implementation does nothing to help communities already saddled with the gap elimination adjustment and Cuomo’s undemocratic tax cap, with many schools soon facing insolvency.  

Cuomo assumed he could ride the wave of education reform all the way to the White House in 2016.  Ironically, his double-speak on Common Core could drown him in this quest, with the full-force of his father’s legacy washing over him. As he now tries to walk his commitment to the Common Core all the way back to joining parents on the picket line, those parents might be asking, what will the Prince’s sign say?

Sadly, Andrew Cuomo doesn’t even know the answer to that question.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cuomo vs. the Committee of 600,000

Between 2011 and 2012, New York teachers (NYSUT) spent $5.9 million to influence the political process. Opponents of unions will point to this as business as usual, just another example of Big Labor’s dominance of the system. Campaign donations in hand, politicians pull strings to protect and promote lazy public school teachers. However, business has been everything but usual in public education of late.  As teachers around the country grapple with budget cuts and Common Core, 300,000 of their colleagues have lost their job since 2009, and morale is at a twenty-year low.  With public education under assault from all angles, just how much did NYSUT’s millions buy for its members?

As it turns out, not much. During that same two-year period, the Committee to Save New York (CSNY), a pro-corporation, anti-union PAC formed with Governor Cuomo’s blessing, spent $17 million on lobbying—about $11 million more than teachers.  Fueled by large contributions from a few anonymous billionaires, CSNY and Cuomo successfully advanced their agenda in New York by slashing worker pensions and corporate taxes, topped with a pernicious property tax cap on school districts. Though CSNY recently filed papers to dissolve itself, saying that its “mission was largely successful”, (coincidentally coinciding with new requirements to reveal its donors) more groups like CSNY are bound to metastasize, touting the same desire to “neutralize the impact of special interest money.” However, when a small group of wealthy people can quickly coalesce and spend three times as much money on lobbying as 600,000 union members, does this level the scale, or knock it over?

Since the Citizens United ruling in 2010, what's happening in New York is happening all around the country, as a minority of wealthy individuals and the PACs they fund muffles the masses, and public financing initiatives have stalled with plutocrats’ billions subsuming the system. Though Cuomo himself is pushing his own version of campaign finance reform in his current budget, how sincere is he, given that he’s only aided and abetted the current system as governor? Will Cuomo refund the $33 million currently in his re-election war chest? Doubtful.       

With rank and file teachers’ anger toward their governor’s policies spilling out at forums and rallies across the state, NYSUT’s officers recently dropped $10,000 of union money at Cuomo’s birthday party, dancing the night away to Billy Joel amid the embers of members’ money.  VOTE-COPE, the union’s voluntary political action fund, is supposed to be put to prudent use, supporting politicians who “understand the importance of education.”  The fund raises the volume of NYSUT’s voice and helps engender favorable conditions for organized labor. Cuomo, however, has been anything but favorable to New York’s parents and teachers, slashing school aid while stubbornly moving forward with moronic standardized tests. Andy Pallotta, NYSUT’s executive vice president who authorized the donation to Cuomo, would like his members to believe that $10,000 was the price for a seat at Cuomo's table—albeit an expensive one. Pallotta and Revive NYSUT (the slate of candidates he’s running with to unseat NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and his officers) liken Cuomo to a bossy principal or superintendent who they want to “win over.” However, is $10,000—or even $5.9 million—enough to win over Andrew Cuomo, or any other politician whose pockets are already overflowing with corporate cash?

Cuomo’s actions speak for themselves, and Pallotta and other union leaders' seats, while still in the same room, are now at the kiddie table.  Workers have been shooed away from the grown-ups by plutocrats and corporate interests. Unable to compete with corporate dollars, unions must change course and admit that their members’ modest political donations are no longer enough to win over politicians like Cuomo. If union dollars no longer shout, what then must they say?

For one, it need not be the job of unions to win over politicians. Politicians must win over all voters, including union members.  As echoed in VOTE-COPE’s mission statement, member donations must go toward candidates who already understand the importance of education and have proven this through their records. Union money cannot be wasted trying to change the minds of leaders who’ve already had their minds made up by the dollars of hedge fund managers, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates. Member donations should be used to defeat—not convert—candidates like Cuomo, and our present and future leaders must pay a political price for siding with corporations over people.

As union membership shrinks to its lowest level in 98 years, it is in every member's interest to help others form unions and launch campaigns to educate the public on how unions benefit all working people. With America as unequal as ever, each union member lost to budget cuts tips the scale further in favor of the one-percent.  Teachers unions can be instrumental in helping parents better understand current education reforms like the Common Core so that they’ll be best able to fight for their kids at the local level. The more parents know, the more supportive they’ll be of educators, ready to vote for leaders and laws that uphold the social contract. As voting rights fall under conservative crosshairs around the country, unions can also help get out the vote, engaging citizens in federal, state, and school board elections.  

Each year, NYSUT’s Committee of 100 travels to Albany to lobby for the organization's interests, just one way members can engage in the struggle to save public education. NYSUT needs a committee of 600,000 fighting in every corner of the state, from legislators' offices to doctors’ offices, town halls to shopping malls. With the clouds of Citizens United and corporate money darkening the political landscape, unions must parlay members’ financial support into grassroots activism, not futile efforts to persuade an anti-union governor who shines his shoes with $10,000 bills. Though $5.9 million is a lot less than $17 million, it will be worth a lot more after educating and amplifying the voices of everyone who cares about public education.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why the NYSUT Election Should Matter to Members

The ax against asinine education reforms is starting to swing in New York. Politicians are writing laws to unravel Common Core, and more and more local leaders are speaking out against the gap elimination adjustment and a crushing property tax cap. Changing laws is not easy, however, and those rallying against nonsensical reforms in New York and around the country have a task akin to an exorcism.

On the front lines of this battle are Dick Iannuzzi, president of New York’s largest teachers union (NYSUT), and his executive vice president, Andy Pallotta.  Paradoxically, both are fighting the powers that be while fighting each other, as Pallotta has helped form another group within NYSUT to challenge Iannuzzi’s presidency that calls itself “Revive NYSUT.” Running for president on the Revive ticket is not Pallotta but Karen Magee, president of the Harrison Association of Teachers. Magee has remained silent since accepting the nomination while Pallotta wines and dines politicians on VOTE-COPE money, the union’s voluntary political action fund. 

On the surface, Pallotta is only doing his job; NYSUT’s executive vice president is expected to push legislation on behalf of the members. As the campaign unfolds, however, many local leaders are starting to question just how effective Andy Pallotta has been as NYSUT’s chief legislative advocate. After all, if Pallotta is expected to push favorable laws, why have New York’s teachers been saddled with the tax cap, reduced pension tiers, Common Core, and InBloom? Pallotta’s inaction against this legislation sings louder than Billy Joel at Governor Cuomo’s birthday party.

Pallotta, the only NYSUT incumbent running unopposed, cut his teeth in the UFT, NYSUT’s largest yet smallest local. For example, only 14% percent of working teachers voted in the UFT’s last presidential election. This minority of active members and retirees who reelected Michael Mulgrew also essentially controls over a third of the votes for NYSUT president, and Mulgrew and the UFT have already endorsed the Revive slate. Should Revive come to power, Mulgrew’s UFT will be first in line for handouts from Cuomo as long as Cuomo’s signature reforms of the tax cap and APPR remained unmarred by Pallotta. An endorsement of Cuomo by NYSUT (spurring a subsequent AFL-CIO endorsement) wouldn’t hurt, either.  

Though rank and file teachers were among the first to see through the pseudo-democrat Cuomo, Pallotta, Mulgrew, and the rest of Revive have not sounded the alarm against him, opposing him in lukewarm spirit only. Many have questioned where Revive’s loyalty lies, as the group seems more interested in ousting Iannuzzi than Cuomo. Though elections are healthy for any organization—this contest has already engaged more members in unionism—NYSUT cannot afford to be more outspoken against itself than Cuomo. Ideally, Revive should be strong enough to oppose Iannuzzi and help NYSUT find a viable candidate to run against Cuomo.  This would undermine Revive’s tenuous platform, however, and require Pallotta to finally step off the political cocktail circuit and into the offices of legislators.

Last June, nearly 20,000 members of NYSUT converged in Albany to demand action against laws passed under Pallotta’s watch. The One Voice United rally was President Iannuzzi’s own attempt to awaken our leaders in the capital. Though Mulgrew failed to awaken his own members for the rally (most of the UFT did not attend), One Voice United aroused Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, whose money and dark-rimmed glasses determine much of New York’s education policies. Concerned that NYSUT was co-opting the reform narrative, Tisch and Education Commissioner John King soon embarked on a series of community forums around the state to clear up “misconceptions” about Common Core. 

By anyone’s standards, the Common Core forums were a disaster for the Regents, with passionate parents bringing everything but the torches and tomatoes.  Tisch and King’s detached, myopic views alienated people at each stop on the tour, and calls for King’s resignation before the forums suddenly seemed premature.  NYSUT’s “Speak Truth to Power” campaign had reached the grassroots, with Albany leaders on the run. Meanwhile, with no Pallotta-pushed repeal in sight, NYSUT’s legal department filed a lawsuit against the undemocratic tax cap. NYSUT also recently withdrew its support for the Common Core, and moved to vote “no confidence” in Commissioner King, who has screwed his feet even tighter to his stubborn positions since the disastrous forums.  Iannuzzi began picking up where Palllotta never left off, joined by people and politicians of all political persuasions.  As Iannuzzi’s long game played out, the Revive candidates huddled behind the scenes, biding their time until their certain victory in April.

Revive should not become too complacent, however, as local presidents will have something to say about Magee and the rest of Revive at this year’s Representative Assembly (RA).  Iannuzzi, along with other incumbents Maria Neira (Vice President), Kathleen Donahue (Vice President), and Lee Cutler (Secretary Treasurer), have formed Stronger Together and are urging leaders from all locals to attend this year’s RA, regardless of their size.  If NYSUT is truly a democractic organization, multitudinous voices from all corners of the state will drown the din of Magee and the UFT this April in New York City.    

New York’s teachers are calling for help all over, demanding action from their union. Though slow to unfold, Dick Iannuzzi’s actions are now beginning to come into view. Common Core has garnered unanimous disdain, and the public is finally starting to side with teachers again. NYSUT must keep this momentum moving, and solidarity needs affirmation now more than ever before. This election should matter to NYSUT members, as their union is the only thing standing between them and the twisted visions of plutocrats.