De Blasio v. Cuomo I: The Altercation in Albany

We could use Ali's talents now to describe the battle brewing between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.
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Muhammad Ali had a great knack for using rhyme to name battles between heavyweight titans. Ali-Foreman fought in Zaire (now the Congo), was the "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali-Frazier 3, fought in the Philippines was the "Thilla in Manila." We could use Ali's talents now to describe the battle brewing between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. I tend toward alliteration so I am calling it the "Altercation in Albany," but I bet Muhammad Ali in his poetic prime would have come up with a better nickname.

I never was a big fan of Bill de Blasio; not when he was my city council representative for eight years, not when he was the New York City Public Advocate for four years, and not when he was a candidate for Mayor of New York City. I always felt de Blasio talked "progressive" but his policy proposals were moderate tinkerings that would not bring significant change. De Blasio rarely publically challenged or even questioned his predecessor as mayor, Michal Bloomberg, until he was a candidate for mayor himself, and his record of achievement in twelve years in office is at best described as sparse. Until recently his primary claim to political significance was as a campaign manager for Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Senate and in 2008 Presidential primaries.

But I am starting to like Bill de Blasio much more. I really liked the tone of his recent "State of the City" address. Not so much because of his proposals, which I still think of as moderate, but because he is prepared to fight for his proposals, challenge powerful political operators in New York State and Washington, mobilize public opinion, and be an out front leader, things that have been sorely lacking in the Obama presidency.

In the "State of the City" address, de Blasio declared that he would bypass the political logjam in Washington by pressing for a higher minimum wage for New York City's work force and by issuing New York City identification cards to residents regardless of legal status. San Francisco and the state of Washington have already set higher minimum wage rates; it is now $10.74 an hour in San Francisco. The municipal ID cards would make it easier for undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts and rent apartments. Other cities, including New Haven, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have adopted similar plans. To show support for de Blasio and the immigrant community, I will apply for my city-issued ID card as soon as they are available. In the speech, De Blasio also continued his push for a small tax increase on wealthy New Yorkers that will pay for a much needed universal pre-kindergarten program.

The big problem facing de Blasio and the people of New York City is that many of de Blasio's proposals, including the higher minimum wage and the pre-K tax, require approval by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature in Albany. It is not surprising that Republican leaders in the State Senate are not interested in approving these proposals. The puzzling thing is that neither is Cuomo, who is nominally a Democrat. The hallmark of Cuomo's stewardship as governor has been tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations, including his latest proposal for a $2 billion tax cut primarily directed at property and business owners and upstate manufacturers.

In response to the de Blasio pre-K proposal, Andrew Cuomo announced that he could implement universal pre-K statewide without a tax increase. Public opinion polls show New Yorkers like the Cuomo plan better than the de Blasio plan; evidently most people are prepared to believe he could deliver better education for free. State Education Commissioner John King initially was not so sure it could be done, testifying at a budget hearing that universal pre-K in New York State would cost $1.6 billion a year. Curiously, King backed-off from his position in a press statement issued after the Cuomo speech.

While, as I said, I was never a big Bill de Blasio fan before, I have come to seriously dislike Andrew Cuomo, especially because of recent Albany behavior that I can only describe as bullying. It is as if Cuomo is competing with Chris Christie to be the biggest bully who wants to be President of the United States.

The New York State Board of Regents has been under tremendous pressure from parents, students, teachers, school and district administrators, and the teachers' union to revise the timetable for implementation of new national Common Core standards. Whether you think the standards are appropriate or not, amongst the biggest problems with them are that they are not accompanied by appropriate curriculum, there has been tremendous pressure to prepare children for high-stakes assessments to the detriment of regular instruction, students are being tested and graded on things they never learned, and teachers are being evaluated based on student performance on these tests.

The New York Regents finally seemed to bow to the pressure and to agree to slow down the implementation of Common Core until it could be done in a systematic and rationale way that did not undermine education in New York State. Some critics felt that the Regents were not really doing very much, including Carol Burris, a high school principal from Long Island who has been a leader of the campaign to derail Common Core and the high-stakes testing regime. I strongly recommend you read her blog on the Washington Post website. The P-12 Education Committee issued a report and it was scheduled to be voted on by the full board. Anyway that was Monday, February 10, 2014.

Less than an hour after Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, described Cuomo "an enormous ally" in improving teacher evaluations, Cuomo denounced the committee report. Cuomo charged "There is a difference between remedying the system for students and parents and using this situation as yet another excuse to stop the teacher- evaluation process." State Education Commissioner John King quickly turned himself into a pretzel in his rush to stay in Cuomo's good graces. He vowed to stay "absolutely committed" to the Common Core, despite calls for delays and other criticisms.

On Tuesday, February 11, 2014 the Board of Regents buckled under pressure from Governor Cuomo to drop a provision delaying teacher evaluations from the changes it recommended to the Common Core curriculum. The board tabled a final decision on teacher evaluations until April. It did approve a five-year delay on using Common Core standards to determine high-school student graduation.

Cuomo, meanwhile, has appointed his own eleven-member commission to investigate the implementation of Common Core. Critics of Common Core, myself included, are very skeptical about what the commission will discover. The chair of the commission, Stanley Litow, an IBM Vice-President and Chair of the IBM International Foundation, is a strong supporter of the Common Core Standards and student testing. The commission's leading academic member, Linda Darling-Hammond, was an educational advisor to Barack Obama whose Race to the Top initiative forced states to implement the testing regimes inn the first place. She has also partnered with Pearson Education, one of the companies producing the tests and selling curriculum material. Darling-Hammond supports the high-stakes standardized tests associated with Common Core, although she has expressed reservations about tying teacher evaluations to student tests scores.

The Cuomo commission also includes Charles Russo, Dan Weisberg, and a teacher named Nick Lawrence. Russo, Superintendent of the East Moriches school district on Long Island, is one of the few Long Island superintendents to publically endorse Common Core and the high stakes tests.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and the NYS Allies for Public Education criticized the selection of some of the other members of the Cuomo commission as biased because they "belong to organizations that are heavily dependent on funding from the Gates Foundation, which has spent more than $170 million on developing and promoting the Common Core. These include Dan Weisberg of The New Teacher Project, which has received $23 million from the Gates Foundation, including $7 million in the last year alone. Nick Lawrence is a prominent member of Educators for Excellence, which received more than $3 million from the Gates Foundation in 2013." In November 2013, Lawrence wrote "It turns out that much of the rhetoric against the Common Core standards is just that: rhetoric . . . Their claims have been repeatedly debunked, but they continue to crop up, reminding us that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on."

I share at least one thing in common with Mr. Lawrence. I like Mark Twain also, but I want to recommend to Mr. Lawrence and Governor Cuomo two different quotes that have been attributed to Twain.

Post-It Note: Sonny Liston was heavyweight boxing champion until he was defeated by Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) in 1964. His nickname was "Big Bear." Before the fight, Ali re-nicknamed Liston "Ugly Bear." Andrew Cuomo better be careful. Ugly Bear sounds like a good nickname for him too.

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