By Washington Examiner, January 28, 2015
When conservatives think of education reform, they tend to regard it as their own fight. They bring up the charter and voucher programs promoted by Republicans such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. They mention Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose 2011 public-sector union reforms have already saved his state’s school districts at least $3 billion dollars and averted the need to fire teachers in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
But Democrats also want their children to get a good education, and as a result something new and bipartisan is happening in the world of education policy. There appears to be a great awakening across the ideological spectrum to the fact that primary and secondary education is failing badly and that the entrenched enemies of reform — the teachers’ unions — are much too powerful. The unions are a key impediment to much-needed education reforms. Everyone knows it and now more people are willing to say it out loud.
For all of his faults, one pleasant surprise of President Obama’s administration has been his display of independence from the teachers’ unions that oppose anything that might create standards, competition, or accountability for the often deplorable quality of their members’ work. Even Obama’s promotion of Common Core, which many conservatives oppose for different reasons, has rankled the unions because it would subject teachers to clear standards and measurements of success.
New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, also deserves bipartisan recognition for what he is doing in this vital policy area. The recent corruption indictment of anti-reform state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, makes it more likely that much or all of the governor’s education agenda will pass.
Cuomo has complained that the standards intended to evaluate teachers in his state are “baloney” — only one percent of teachers have been found to be ineffective even though two-thirds of students cannot read or do math at grade level. Thus, the governor has conditioned a $1.1 billion increase in education spending this year on reforms that would toughen standards and make only the best teachers get tenure.
The deal making method that Cuomo has employed is part of a broader pattern that shows he is serious about reform. In the face of opposition from his fellow Democrats, he has shrewdly packaged measures they don’t like (such as tax credits for donors to private school scholarships) into bills that include measures they want (such as extending in-state tuition to illegal immigrants).
Cuomo has also signed a law that Bill de Blasio, New York City’s anti-reform mayor, opposed, making it easier for charter schools to use empty space in public school buildings. The governor is trying to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the state from 460 to 560.
Cuomo is not anti-union — in fact, the New York Times notes that several labor unions back his private scholarship bill, hoping it will benefit their members’ children. The teachers’ unions, however, withheld their endorsement from Cuomo in his 2014 re-election. This frees his hand to pursue true reform, for he is not beholden to them.
It could hurt his national aspirations, about which he has not been shy. But still, he is doing what he was elected to do — making decisions that better the lives of people in his state. Cuomo may be spotting a trend sooner than some of his colleagues. An understanding that schools needs to be prized from the sclerotic grip of the teachers’ unions is an admirable departure from the reflexive defense of the status quo (with pleas for more money) that have long passed for education policy in the Democratic Party.