Inside New York's Ed Reform Cabal

New York moved a step closer to a major overhaul of the state’s public education system on April 1, when the State Assembly approved a spending plan strongly supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with the apparent backing of some very wealthy donors and top education reform funders.

The changes to New York state education law read like an education reformer’s wish list: a new teacher evaluation system, reductions in teacher tenure protections, and provisions to make it easier for Albany to take over consistently underperforming schools. Gov. Cuomo wants more charter schools authorized as well, but that section of the budget bill was removed and was slated for separate consideration at a later time, according to an Associated Press report.

The governor has declared that the bill represents the most “pro-teacher” budget ever, but teacher groups in Albany are not buying it. Although the measure boosts school spending by $1.4 billion, teachers unions remain opposed to funder-backed teacher evaluation policies, which the unions say unfairly blame teachers for socioeconomic challenges that affect the academic performance of many students. The governor agreed to some compromises in the bill to ensure passage. In addition to the increased education funding, state education officials will oversee the details of the teacher evaluation system. But for the most part, the governor and his backers got what they wanted.

Since his State of the State address in January, Cuomo’s message has been that more money is not the answer for public education in New York. That is the same message pushed by an advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools (FES), and a Super PAC known as New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. As a 2015 investigative report by The Nation magazine found, the two groups are largely funded by nine Wall Street billionaires, including hedge fund manager and Success Academy charter school chain founder Joel Greenblatt, PAVE charter school founder Julian H. Robertson Jr., and hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb.

Loeb is the chair of the Success Academy charter school network in Brooklyn and is a co-founder, with former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, of Students First (see here for past coverage of Loeb’s education philanthropy). Together, The Nation reported, the two groups provide a powerful vehicle by which a small group of wealthy hedge fund titans can push their vision of public schooling—which is virtually identical to the reforms championed by Cuomo.

FES also counts among its supporters two pro-charter school and pro-reform foundations: the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation. Together, the two funders have given nearly $1 million to FES in the past year. Walton is one of the most prominent charter school funders in the country. Broad awards an annual prize of $250,000 for charter schools, which it has continued even after announcing an end to its annual prize for most improved urban school districts.

The passage by lawmakers in Albany of Gov. Cuomo’s education reforms signals a major victory for this group of Wall Street philanthropists, and is the culmination of several years of lobbying and advocacy. FES organized and led pro-education reform rallies, including a 2013 march by charter school students and parents in opposition to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to charge charter school operators rent for operating in public space. Such activities carry the appearance of grassroots activism, but The Nation cited an American Enterprise Institute publication, which reported that groups such as FES use stipends of up to $1,000 a year to encourage parents to take part in mobilization efforts such as these.

FES and New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany also advocated policy changes at the state level and threw their full support behind Gov. Cuomo. The Nation reported that, as attorney general and governor, Cuomo has received nearly $5 million in contributions from hedge fund donors.

The events in Albany provide another illustration of the concerns regarding funder influence over public education, one of the country’s most democratic institutions. Cuomo’s education reform agenda seems clearly funder-influenced, rather than stemming from public support. Quinnipiac polling data cited by The Nation indicates public views on the governor’s education reform package running more than 2 to 1 against it. Most of Cuomo’s fellow Democrats supported the budget and reform measure, but with a decided lack of enthusiasm.

This is not the end of the fight over public education in the Empire State. AP reported that charter schools and mayoral control of New York City schools are expected to be major issues in the final weeks of the legislative session. Given their deep involvement in New York's charter schools, it is certain that the funders behind the recently passed package of reforms will put their considerable influence and wealth behind expanding charters and keeping Mayor de Blasio at bay. It is also clear that the concerns surrounding billionaire donor influence over public education will persist.

At the same time, however, a cautionary note for pro-reform funders is in order as well. Adding more charter schools and curbing the power of teachers unions are no guarantee of broad increases in student achievement. Just ask Walton, which recently decided to step away from its involvement in Milwaukee, once the hub of the education reform movement. Walton-funded work initiated private school vouchers and added charter schools—all with political support. Results in the years since then have been underwhelming.

Some studies suggest that too many funders over-rely on public policy as a means of producing better educational outcomes, and that actions by legislatures and governors seldom translate to tangible improvement. Time will tell whether the policy changes promoted by this group of hedge fund philanthropists will produce results in New York classrooms.