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 theydon’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.

– Peter Meyer

This also appears on Board’s Eye View.

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