Teachers unions supply the Democratic Party with money and foot soldiers. But if Democrats intend to make income inequality their issue in 2014 and 2016, they will have to give up their slavish devotion to these unions, which deny inner-city kids a shot at a quality education and an escape route from poverty.
A few Democrats, such as former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have challenged union power, but not New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Anyone eyeing Cuomo as the backup candidate for president in 2016, in the event Hillary Clinton doesn’t run, needs to take a look at his failed record on school reform.
New Yorkers are fleeing the upstate region’s moribund economy and moving to states with more jobs, fewer taxes and job-killing regulations. But inner-city school kids in Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo aren’t going anywhere. Despite the phrase “no child left behind,” that’s exactly what they are: kids left behind. They are victims of Cuomo’s indifference to school failure and the greed of teachers unions.
At the worst high schools in Buffalo, fewer than 25 percent of students graduate on time. District wide, only about half graduate. The same is true in Rochester and Syracuse. That means no mobility — social or geographical — for these kids.
Bridgegate has been all over the news, because New Jersey’s governor allegedly stalled drivers at the George Washington Bridge for four days. New York’s governor is stalling inner-city kids for a lifetime. They can’t escape or succeed.
Compared with newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who opposes charter schools, merit pay and standardized tests, Cuomo is touted as a reformer. It’s undeserved. On occasion, Cuomo has talked tough about failing schools. But his record during his first three years is zero. A striking contrast to the strides Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has made since winning office in 2010.
In August 2013, Cuomo hit a rhetorical extreme, warning that schools that did not improve would get the “death penalty.” But four months later, on Dec. 15, New York State Education Commissioner John King admitted he saw little hope that the steps being taken since that threat could turn these schools around.
On Jan. 14, Cuomo’s education reform commission issued its long-awaited recommendations: 66 pages of blather. The chief recommendation for failing urban schools was $15 million in grants for experimental programs. Kicking the can down the road, the commission calls for more commissions and reports. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a commission member, insists more spending is needed.
That last one is laughable. Of the 50 states, New York spends the most per pupil — a staggering $19,076 — literally double what California, hardly a backwater, spends. Despite the highest spending, New York still is 39th in graduation rates, 36th in fourth-grade reading scores and 35th in eighth-grade math, according to the commission’s own report.
Buffalo school district spends an obscene $26,903 per pupil, highest of any large district in New York State and third highest among urban districts in the nation.
Money down the drain, because that district is hostage to the Buffalo Federation of Teachers. Something Cuomo won’t say and won’t use political capital to fix. The district and union have been unable to negotiate a contract since the last expired in 2004. Under state law, teachers continue under generous old contract terms but with annual pay hikes of 2.5 percent. The benefits include unlimited cosmetic surgery, liposuction and other extravagant procedures without even a copay, costing taxpayers an estimated $5.2 million a year, according to an Atlantic magazine expose.
Buffalo teachers are sitting pretty. This year, they refused to be part of a teacher evaluation using their students’ standardized test scores, costing the district millions in school aid. Similarly, in Rochester, where only 5 percent of students scored proficient on Common Core math standards, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, Adam Urbanski, threatened “mass insubordination” in response to new teacher evaluations.
Cuomo’s kowtowing to unions is typical of the Democratic Party. But if Democrats want to get serious about equality of opportunity, they can start by putting kids ahead of union bosses.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of Beating Obamacare: Your Handbook for the New Healthcare Law.