Common-Core Discontent Reflected in N.Y. Primary

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 15, 2014 6 min read
Governor Andrew Cuomo walks to record his ballot after voting in the Democratic primary election on Sept. 9 in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
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While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo easily captured the Democratic nomination for governor last week, a relatively strong showing by his progressive challenger in the primary could sustain a long-term effort to combat the state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the way it uses tests for K-12 accountability.

Supporters of challenger Zephyr Teachout, along with Tim Wu, her running mate, who lost a separate Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, say that regardless of the results from the Sept. 9 primary, Ms. Teachout’s relatively strong showing is a sign that the state can be an inspiration nationwide for left-leaning opposition to the standards. It also shows, they say, that the movement behind her candidacy hasn’t peaked.

“She empowers the resistance,” said Nicholas Tampio, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University in New York City who supported Ms. Teachout’s candidacy, although he’s never worked with her. “These issues aren’t going away. She’s given you this language and this mobilization of people who are now prepared to fight the common core in New York.”

Gov. Cuomo now faces a Nov. 4 election against a Republican, Rob Astorino, who like Ms. Teachout, has made common-core opposition a signature part of his campaign, but from a conservative perspective.

Still, it’s unclear to what extent the common core and the associated tests will hurt Mr. Cuomo, or the degree to which he’ll contemplate further policy shifts in light of the campaign season, said Richard Brodsky, a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank in New York City, who has written in support of increased education funding in the state.

“I’m not sure there’s an easy, summary-phrase position for what his position is on common core and standardized testing. I don’t think he’s allowed himself to be trapped in what is a contentious public debate,” Mr. Brodsky said.

‘Statewide and National Backlash’

Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, answers a question at a news conference in Hawthorne, N.Y., earlier this month.

It would be a mistake to say that the Democratic gubernatorial primary turned out to be a close race by the numbers. Ms. Teachout, an associate professor at the Fordham University law school and a first-time candidate for political office, picked up 33 percent of the vote in the primary, compared with 60 percent for Gov. Cuomo.

In an interview before the primary, Mr. Brodsky stressed that although she was a credible candidate, Ms. Teachout would find it difficult to escape the $35 million campaign war chest Mr. Cuomo amassed. By contrast, she raised $230,000.

However, political prognosticators generally had pegged her expected share of the vote at approximately 20 percent, with her better-than-expected showing illustrating the degree to which a notable share of Democratic voters in New York are unhappy with Gov. Cuomo’s first term. He was first elected in 2010.

As far as education policy, much of that dissatisfaction is focused on the implementation of the state’s curriculum aligned to the common core, as well as English/language arts and mathematics tests aligned to the standards. Critics, including the state teachers’ unions and progressives, along with some Republicans, have criticized various aspects of the common-core tests, which were first administered by the state in 2013. Lower rates of student proficiency had been one source of contention.

In an interview before the primary, Ms. Teachout said her campaign was part of a “statewide and national backlash” to approaches that mirror what she called Gov. Cuomo’s refusal to adequately fund schools and his misguided approach to tests and accountability for schools and teachers.

“It’s an attack on this most fundamental and essential institution, which is fully funded public education where we trust and respect our teachers and allow each child to be seen for who they are,” she said.

Resources, as much as testing and standards, were key to Ms. Teachout’s message on K-12 policy. For example, she vigorously campaigned on eliminating the state’s property-tax caps for districts, which require a supermajority of voters for districts to increase property taxes beyond specified levels in a given year.

Shifting Positions

But the progressive push against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies must also reckon with some changes backed by the governor that appear to acknowledge criticisms from unions and education progressives, at least in a limited fashion.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout waves to school children on a bus in New York after voting in the state Democratic primary on Sept. 9.

For example, a plan backed by Mr. Cuomo and approved by the legislature last June prohibits the portion of teachers’ evaluations determined by common-core-aligned tests from causing teachers to be given the two lowest ratings (“ineffective” or “developing”) during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

The move represented a change for the governor. Earlier in the year, he had attacked the state board of regents for exploring a proposal to allow teachers and principals to defend themselves against poor ratings by citing the rocky rollout of the state’s new curriculum. Separately, the state board also pushed back the timetable for when the tests would affect students’ ability to graduate.

In March, Gov. Cuomo acknowledged the “flawed” rollout of the common core in the state and supported “phasing in” the consequences of common-core tests for students, saying in a statement that “we need to make sure that our students are not unfairly harmed by its implementation.”

Ms. Teachout said the governor only acted because of “serious grassroots pressure” and was “only putting off what should be ended.”

Gov. Cuomo’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

No Union Backing

Ms. Teachout, however, failed to pick up the official backing of union groups that shared key positions with her. The statewide teachers’ union, New York State United Teachers, attacked Mr. Cuomo’s administration over the state-backed curriculum aligned to the new standards and withdrew its support for the common core. But the union declined to endorse a candidate in 2014. (It also stayed away from endorsements in the 2010 gubernatorial race.)

And the New York Daily News also reported that American Federation of Teachers President Weingarten taped an automated phone call supporting Mr. Wu’s opponent and Gov. Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor, former U.S. Rep. Kathleen Hochul, based on Ms. Hochul’s “pro-public-school record.” Ms. Hochul got 60 percent of the vote in the primary, compared with 40 percent for Mr. Wu, a law professor at Columbia University.

The governor deserves credit for his long-term approach to teacher evaluations, common-core implementation, and his support for charter schools and school choice in New York, said Nicole Brisbane, the director of Democrats for Education Reform New York, an advocacy group that supports the common core and school choice and backs Gov. Cuomo.

“We did a lot in a short amount of time, and I think that’s what caused a lot of the contentiousness with the issue,” Ms. Brisbane said, referring to common-core implementation. “It really became the scapegoat for teacher evaluations.”

The governor’s Republican opponent, Mr. Astorino, has submitted a petition with the state to create a “Stop Common Core” ballot line for the Nov. 4 election that would allow voters to channel their discontent over the common core into votes for his campaign. (The state board of elections will consider final approval of the ballot line later this month.) The effort is designed in part to appeal to disaffected Democrats and Ms. Teachout’s supporters.

“Ultimately, there are a lot of people who want common core scrapped,” Mr. Astorino said.

In addition to criticizing the links between the state’s Race to the Top grant and the common core, Mr. Astorino said the New York’s adoption and handling of the common standards show that the state’s education governance is in disarray in New York state. He wants the board of regents to be either directly elected or to be appointed by local school board members.

Unlike Ms. Teachout, Mr. Astorino said common-core foes of whatever stripe can’t count on using a long-term strategy to defeat the standards.

“They got one shot at it,” he said, “and that’s me.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Primary Results Hint at Depth of Common-Core Discontent


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