Hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson stands at a Harvard club podium in midtown Manhattan, facing a room full of investors eating eggs and bacon, and eager to learn more about charter schools. The walls of the wood-paneled room are lined with the portraits of Tilson’s Harvard forefathers. Above the podium where Tilson stands hangs an ornamental gold ship, swaying. In the corner of the room is a large screen, on which the logos of the day’s sponsors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, float like guardian angels. Two large stone fireplaces dominate the west end of the room. Their exaggerated mantelpieces are each decorated with two empty crests and a laurel—symbols of power drained of any purpose.
Tilson begins an enormous PowerPoint presentation, speaking of the inequities black and Latino children face in the public school system. “Your entire prison population is in these red bars,” he explains, showing red bars indicating the high percentage of poor black and Latino children who could not read at a fourth-grade level. No such children, nor their parents, seemed to have been invited to this presentation.
Despite the role poverty plays in determining whose kids gets stuck in those red bars, Tilson declares to the room of Ivy League investors, “This is not rocket science. Notice on my list there’s no #5, no Spend More Money. You get new facilities and smaller classrooms but nothing changes. Nobody believes anymore that if you give us more money we’ll solve all the problems.”
Something is Rotten in the State of New York
These exact talking points were echoed in Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, last January, where the governor commanded the legislature, “Don’t tell me that if we only had more money [for education], it would change. We have been putting more money into this system every year for a decade and it hasn’t changed and 250,000 [failing children] will condemn the failing schools by this system.”
Putting his money, or lack thereof, where his mouth is, Cuomo has banked his gubernatorial legacy on a budget that would again fail to meet the state’s public-school funding requirements, instead increasing the privatization of New York’s education system and weakening New York State’s once powerful teachers’ union, NYSUT. Cuomo’s education reform proposal would tie 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student test scores, based on a controversial practice called Value-Added Modeling, drastically weaken teachers’ opportunity for tenure, expedite the firing of teachers, make room for a hundred more charter schools, and promote state takeover of “failing” (or poor) school districts—a tactic that has been used to expand charter school growth without the consent of elected school boards across the country. In his 2014 re-election bid, Cuomo declared that as governor he would work to enact long-term measures to “break” public education, which he called “one of the only remaining public monopolies.” His pledge will be put to the test when the state legislature votes on his budget proposals at the end of this month.