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Budget & Finance

N.Y. Congressional Race Highlights Testing, Charters, Common Core

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 12, 2016 5 min read
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Zephyr Teachout, who ran against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo two years ago in the Democratic primary by attacking his policies about testing and the Common Core State Standards, is now campaigning on a similar platform as she seeks a seat in Congress as a Democrat. Her GOP opponent, John Faso, is a big fan of charter schools and used to work on budget issues for the Buffalo, N.Y., school district.

Teachout is an associate professor at Fordham University law school, while Faso is a former member of the state assembly who also ran unsuccessfully for Empire State governor in 2006. Both are seeking the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives being vacated by current U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican, who represents the state’s 19th congressional district. The district consists of several upstate counties around Albany. According to recent polling, they’re running neck and neck. And the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., acknowledged that it’s a tight race between the two.

A victory for Teachout would mean that those critical of high-stakes tests and the common core would get a big-time champion in Washington, maybe their most outspoken one. She would also represent a state where backlash to those policies has been particularly strong, as expressed through the testing opt-out movement. Yet in a few respects, her view of education policy isn’t wholly different from Faso’s—more on that below.

As we wrote in 2014, Teachout became something of a hero for progressives and others who expressed disgust at education policy in New York state under Cuomo, former state school board chief Merryl H. Tisch, and then-Commissioner of Education John B. King Jr.—who’s now U.S. education secretary. She said she was taking a stand for public education and said that Cuomo was responsible for various policies that undermined schools, including underfunding of K-12 and teacher evaluations that were tied to test scores.

Teachout lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Cuomo by a significant margin, but garnered a bigger share of the vote (33 percent) than many expected—Cuomo got 60 percent of the vote. Teachout can count on Diane Ravitch, an education historian and high-profile critic of policies associated with Cuomo and President Barack Obama, as one of her fans.

We weren’t able to speak with Teachout directly for this post. A spokesperson for her campaign, Alexis Grenell, said this week that Teachout had been marching with the Alliance for Quality Education to demand that New York state fully fund education, 10 years after a landmark court ruling about Empire State education spending. The group says black, Latino, and other students do not get the share of resources they deserve in K-12 in many districts. The march took place Oct. 2 to Oct. 11, and went from New York City to Albany.

Meanwhile, as the state assembly minority leader, Faso wrote legislation to expand charter schools in New York state. And a decade ago, when he ran for governor, Faso criticized then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, for not being a bigger fan of charters. The New York Post reported that Gibson has endorsed Faso to replace him. In an interview, he told us that the federal government has injected itself too much into state and local K-12 decisions over the last dozen years.

And he was particularly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act—which he said he would have voted against had he been in Congress— and the Race to the Top grant New York state received for work on curriculum, standards, and accountability.

“The federal government could have just dropped [money] out of airplanes and it would have had the same impact,” Faso told us.

‘Government Overreach’

Teachout repeatedly stresses that she is in favor of “public education.” On her website, Teachout notes that she used to work as an aide to a special education teacher in a rural school, and remembers that when she was a child, her teachers were “demanding” but also “attentive.”

“A top-down, highly regimented testing regime like Common Core, would not have worked for all those children, in large part because it would have straight-jacketed teachers, instead of allowing them to respond to particular needs,” her website states. (The state has stuck by the common core under Cuomo, although New York recently publicized proposed revisions to the standards.) Her website goes on to say that “stopping government overreach on local public education” is also a top priority for Teachout.

It’s not clear if she is a fan of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which shifts more control over K-12 policy to states and districts. ESSA doesn’t ban the common core, but it does prevent the U.S. Department of Education from incentivizing or otherwise influencing states’ decisions regarding content standards.

Faso acknowledged that he and Teachout share suspicion about the federal government’s role in K-12, and they both don’t really like the common core, with Faso criticizing both the standards’ implementation in New York and the fact that they aren’t uniformly high quality. But Faso said that that unlike him, Teachout is “a shill for the unions.”

Teachout isn’t a fan of charter schools, because she says they drain money away from traditional public schools, often for the benefit of private organizations. But Faso has taken the opposite view. His previous bill would have lifted the cap on New York state charter schools, and New York eventually did expand this cap in 2010. He said that charters in upstate New York have many remarkable successes, along with some failures. He also said that “reasonable” measures of student achievement should be used to evaluate schools and teachers, and that he doesn’t want to see testing completely abandoned as an accountability measure.

“None of these things are panaceas themselves,” he told us.

He also addresses college affordability on his website. Faso wants a national campaign to encourage parents to save more for higher education, specifically through mechanisms like 529 savings accounts. And he wants private organizations to provide seed money for these accounts to help parents get started.

Education doesn’t appear to have been a major focus of their campaign so far, however, according to media reports of their first debate last month.

Photos: Zephyr Teachout speaks during a news conference in Albany, N.Y.; Republican candidate John Faso gets his ballot for voting in the New York congressional primary election last June in Kinderhook, N.Y. (Mike Groll/AP-File)

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