Will the real lobbyist for students please stand!

The responses to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent
claim
that he was going to be a lobbyist for public school students because
no one else was reminded me of the old television game show, “What’s My Line?” wherein
a celebrity panel got to quiz three contestants and then guess which one actually
performed the job they all said they performed. In the aftermath of Cuomo's State of the State address, lots folks came clamoring
with their student lobbyist creds. “A-hem,” wrote commenter SLBYRNES on BuffaloNews.Com:

Apparently, the Governor hasn't noticed the work of Citizen
Action and the Alliance
for Quality Education on behalf of children and the community's schools for
well over a decade. Or the District Parent Coordinating Councils, PTAs, etc….  Part of the reason we struggle so hard for
school improvement may be that he hasn't "heard" clearly or loudly
enough about, or from, us. See you next week, Sir. Oh, and we'll be looking for
that 4% and the CFE [Campaign for Education Equity] funding we fought for 12
years, were awarded, and the state reneged on...just saying.

Money seemed to be a theme of many of the protestors, but one of my
favorites was the video retort, which you can watch below, from the president
of the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA), Tim Kremer, who was
almost as strident as Cuomo:

Well, I have to respectfully disagree, governor.  School board members are lobbyists for
students. School board members are elected by their local communities. They
spend countless hours working to improve public education for students. They give
up nights and weekends, juggle day jobs and family responsibilities. And they
are unpaid for all these efforts. Why do they do it?  Because they believe in public education.
They want to give back to their communities. And they care about their
students….

A predictable response from an education establishment that has been rather
defensive, at least since charters and the “consequential accountability”
movement put student performance on the nation’s radar. (See Fordham’s recent
seminar
and Mark Schneider’s “The
Accountability Plateau
.”) And the protests seemed to help make Cuomo’s
point: “the purpose of public education is to help
children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.”

In fact, most of the protesteths
avoided the rather glaring fact, as Cuomo put it, that New York spends “more money than any other
state but [is] 38th in graduation rates.” 

Granted, as NYSSBA’s Kremer pointed out, “mandate relief” would help,
and his organization (of which I am a member), like many of those who indeed
have their lobbyists, claims to be a public school booster. But NYSSBA, like the
others, has plenty of interests other than those which are good for students –
it opposes charter schools, for instance, unless they are sanctioned by school
boards. As New Jersey education commissioner Chris Cerf put it, during his  brilliant
keynote address
at Fordham’s Rethinking Education Governance conference last
December, “labor has entirely legitimate interests and they often coincide with
the interests of children – that’s one reason education is so well-funded
today. But the problem is that sometimes they don’t coincide.” (Minute 14:00 on
the tape.)

As a school board member, I appreciate Kremer lauding us for the
“countless hours” we work; unfortunately, however, most of those hours are devoted
to mindnumbingly moving the deck chairs around (to avoid bumping into labor
unions scrambling for seats), not what’s best for students. More money for teachers
means better education for students is the message of the union’s television
ads just before the annual budget vote every year. A message that changes
pretty rapidly, when the test scores come out and the unions complain that
poverty and bad parents tie their hands. A local radio commentator called Cuomo’s
lobbyist comment hypocritical because, as everyone knows, he cut education funding,
which hurts students. Of course, this was the same rant the commentator has
been delivering for years, most of those years being marked by increasing funds
and decreasing student achievement.   

The best recent elucidation of the parameters of this debate came from Chris
Cerf. And his address should be seen by policymakers and educators alike, whether
of the reform or establishmentarian persuasion. 
(The quotes below come, generally, from minutes 5 through 14 of the address
and I will give a specific minute in parens where appropriate.) 

Cerf first notes, as many have, that we have thrown billions of dollars
and lots energy at the school reform wall, but nothing seems to have stuck. And
he describes a “taxonomy of why this is so hard” with three possible
answers:  1)The problem is unsolvable, 2)
We have to keep doing what we’re doing, but do it better, and 3) the system is
organized to produce the results it is producing.

He dismisses the first two, though not without some persuasive
arguments – number 1 can’t be true because people are doing it, number 2 won’t
work because it hasn’t worked – and suggests that, indeed, we’re getting such
lousy results because of “the system organized to produce” them. “So we really shouldn't
be surprised by the outcomes.” And this is where Cerf details what the New York governor said
was the needed “paradigm shift.”   

You can’t color within the lines – you have to actually redraw
the lines. Almost all the reform we engage in takes place within a set of
assumptions and boundaries and parentheses and constraints about how the world
is meant to operate. And it seems to me that if you’re not willing to attack
those boundaries themselves, then the potential for an enormous amount of
self-delusion is possible. All hard problems are multiply-determined.
(10:00)  Poverty, culture, money. All
play a role.  Anyone who says that money
doesn’t matter is crazy. 
But the most significant contributor to our long and
frustrating inability to move forward is, in fact, the way we are organized….
Look at the way the governance structure of public education has compromised
our ability to execute the most basic strategies common to any high performing
organization….

Cerf describes a system constructed with “elaborate political
bulwarks against any kind of meaningful change” in the essentials of education,
especially the people who in the system. Work rules like LIFO [last in, first
out], the difficulty of imposing a meaningful evaluation system are two
components of the current system that “get in the way of the common sense
notion of getting the best and the brightest [teachers] and keeping them
working on behalf of children.”(13:20) In
fact, “these limitations,” argues Cerf, are the result of the success of “labors’
agenda.” And here’s the answer to the
Who’s the lobbyist for students? question:

Labor has entirely legitimate interests and they often coincide
with the interests of children – that’s one reason education is so well-funded
today. But the problem is that sometimes they don’t coincide.  (14:00)  If you draw up the venn diagram of the
interests of children and the interests of employees qua employees, there are
areas of non-overlap.  Take LIFO.  The rule in New Jersey, codified and enshrined in
statute, is that you must, in the context of a layoff, you must fire a teacher
who is demonstrably acclaimed as the best teacher in the universe and retain
the job of someone who is universally understood to be inferior even to the
point of being poor. You can defend that on the basis of lots of things – avoid
arbitrariness, messes up the system  --
but you can’t defend it as being in the best interests of children.  (14:50)

Cuomo gets it. And though there is much room for failure here, the new Empire State
governor at least has proven himself a politician who can do what he says: “It’s
about the students, and the achievement, and we have to switch that focus.” We
wish him well in his new job of lobbyist for students.

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