Education Policy and Politics in the N.Y. State Democratic Primary

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 08, 2014 5 min read
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Those who see the primary woes of public education as the overtesting of students, the underfunding of public schools, and the impact of the Common Core State Standards have a candidate they can rally behind: Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham University’s law school who is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary on Sept. 9.

It’s fitting from a political perspective, because nowhere has the liberal or progressive critique of standardized tests and the Common Core State Standards gained more traction at the state level than in New York.

Whether she wins or loses, it will be interesting to see if Teachout’s long-shot campaign proves to be a high water mark politically for progressive anti-testing and anti-common-core activists operating in a Democratic stronghold, or if she will pave the way for like-minded candidates and significant education policy shifts down the road. And, unlike in many states, Cuomo has to be the focal point of their activism when it comes to statewide officials, because neither the state K-12 chief (John King) or the state school board—in this case the state Board of Regents—are picked directly by voters.

‘Corroded Actual Learning’

Teachout, along with Tim Wu, who’s running as her ally in the separate race for lieutenant governor, have put a heavy emphasis on major education policy changes they feel are needed. Along with a push to end the property tax caps in New York state in order to allow for local school budgets to grow more easily, they’ve made opposition to the common core a key part of their campaign.

The basic testing regimen in English/language arts and math in grades 3-8 and high school is rooted in the No Child Left Behind Act, but Teachout and Wu say that linking the common core to standardized tests and teacher evaluations has created a poisonous stew for schools in the state.

“Governor Cuomo’s system of basing teacher evaluations on student tests has corroded actual learning. We should slam the brakes on the barrage of high-stakes testing. This means halting both the new common core tests and tests that are part of the teacher-evaluation system,” the candidates say on their webiste.

They acknowledge Cuomo’s move to delay the impact of common-core tests on teacher evaluations until the 2015-16 school year, but say it’s not enough.

Their stance on the controversial tests in New York have gathered them plaudits from the state’s vocal anti-testing, anti-common-core community on the progressive end of the political spectrum. The New York State Allies for Public Education, a group opposed to high-stakes tests and the common core in New York, recently highlighted the extent to which Teachout is courting and trying to energize these voters:

Measures of Success

So what’s the prognosis for Teachout at the polls? For those playing the expectations game, the consensus seems to be that if Teachout gets more than 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote, she’ll have beaten what the prognosticators think she’ll do, Capital New York reported on Sept. 5.

Richard Brodsky, a senior fellow at Demos, a left-leaning think tank in New York City, said in an interview that whatever her positions on education policy, Teachout faces the same challenges that any primary challenger would have running against a well-funded incumbent governor with relatively high name-recognition among voters.

A July poll from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. found that 86 percent of likely voters either weren’t aware of Teachout as a candidate or had no opinion of her. (In a Siena political poll from last month, I couldn’t find any numbers on Teachout. But that poll did find that 20 percent of respondents said education was their top issue heading into the election.)

“The left-wing dissatisfaction could have consequences, and could have consequences nationally,” Brodsky said, because it could show that such voters are not satisfied solely by a candidate’s very liberal stances on social issues if that candidate has more conservative economic views.

The New York State United Teachers, the statewide union which is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, has declined to endorse a gubernatorial candidate this year, just as it declined any endorsements in 2010. But it’s worth pointing out that according to the New York Daily News, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten taped a call in support of former U.S. Rep. Kathleen Hochul, who is now running for lieutenant governor and is Cuomo’s preferred Democratic candidate. (The lieutenant governor’s race is separate from the gubernatorial contest.)

Picking Up the Baton?

That raises one more point. If Wu, a Columbia Law School professor, beats Hochul in the Democratic primary—something the New York Daily News says could be in the cards—what then? It’s fair to say that it could create some uncomfortable moments on the campaign trail for Cuomo. In fact, we may have gotten a preview of such an awkward campaign moment last week, when Teachout tried to approach Cuomo and Hochul at the Labor Day Parade in New York City and the latter two snubbed her:

If Cuomo and Hochul successfully fend off Teachout and Wu, that won’t mean that hot-potato education topics will disappear from the race. Like Teachout, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino has tried to hang the volatility over common core around Cuomo’s neck. Last month, he submitted a petition to have a “Stop Common Core” line added to the Nov. 4 general election ballot, whereby voters could another avenue at the polls to support his candidacy.

Common core itself is more likely to be a political issue in a Cuomo-Astorino contest this fall than it has been in the Cuomo-Teachout primary, Brodsky said, although Cuomo is polling well ahead of the Republican. The GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, Chris Moss, is also a common core opponent who’s supposed the “Stop Common Core” ballot line.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.