The Tea Party Comes to New York

See if this sounds familiar: A groundbreaking policy passed years ago is provoking aggressive objections on the eve of its implementation. Its opponents are demanding a temporary delay—ostensibly to ensure better implementation, but really to buy time to completely derail the policy. In fact, these opponents are even willing to hold an entirely separate policy hostage until they get their way on the first policy.

No, I’m not talking about the Tea Party’s failed effort to extract a delay in Obamacare as a ransom for funding the federal government. I’m actually describing the efforts of teachers unions to delay much-needed improvements in teacher evaluations in New York. If they don’t get their way, they’re threatening to blow up the Common Core State Standards. Yes, it seems that New York has its own Tea Party—with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten embracing the role of House Speaker John Boehner, while New York State United Teachers president Dick Iannuzzi plays Senator Ted Cruz. It’s quite a turnabout for the AFT to be appropriating the same strategy it has so recently decried.

A bit of background: Unlike the Tea Party, NYSUT was once a happy proponent of the same measures it now opposes. In 2010, the union backed legislation reforming teacher evaluation and signed New York’s Race to the Top application. Partly on the strength of that broad support, the application received glowing scores from federal reviewers.

But clouds have been on the horizon for some time. Teachers union officials have received substantial pushback behind the scenes from fringe groups that want less cooperation on education reform, not more. Much like Boehner’s House Republican caucus, they want a confrontation. And much like Boehner, union officials are giving it to them.

In April, Weingarten fired a warning shot, capitalizing on anxiety about more rigorous state tests aligned to Common Core. She suggested that without a moratorium on the use of new tests in teacher evaluations, Common Core itself would be in jeopardy. As we pointed out then, she was essentially signaling that the union’s support for Common Core was fragile and would last only so long as it provided leverage for other goals.

The union turning on Common Core would be a political blockbuster and an educational disaster. The new standards will provide honest information to families—for the first time—about whether their kids are on track for college. More than 40 states have adopted Common Core, and the standards enjoy widespread support.

To their credit, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commissioner John King didn’t bite. Bolstered by every major editorial board in the state, they stayed the course with both Common Core and evaluation reform even when the results from new tests showed far fewer students meeting benchmarks than earlier, easier tests.

This fall, much like the Tea Party, Weingarten and Ianuzzi raised the stakes. They are circulating new calls for King to delay higher standards for teachers or face calls for his resignation.  They claim particular offense that King has canceled a series of public forums on Common Core after one of them recently turned nasty. (Start watching here at the 14:50 mark if you want to see just how nasty.) They call this an insult to parents.

But according to the president of the state PTA, which helped organize the forum, there's quite a bit more to the story:

The purpose of the Town Hall meeting was not to hold a protest rally, nor to provide a forum for insult, personal attack, or overall disregard—this disregard was not only between the audience and the Commissioner but between audience members themselves. Some asked to be allowed to hear responses while many out-shouted their ability to do so. Despite requests by the Commissioner and NYS PTA to be courteous, disruptions continued and escalated. 

Could have been a Tea Party rally, right? In suggesting King should step down, though, his opponents are exceeding even the Tea Party, which has not gone so far as to call on Obama to leave office. Otherwise it’s getting difficult to tell the difference between the fields of play in our nation’s capital and New York State.

The Tea Party play on Obamacare was ultimately unsuccessful in Washington, largely because there was little public appetite for it and resolute leadership. I would guess NYSUT and AFT will find much the same in New York. Why would Governor Cuomo stand firmly behind raising education standards for several years, only to fold under pressure from an interest group whose support has long been wavering? Why would Tisch show herself to be willing to participate in policy hostage-taking? Why would King make it seem that Weingarten and Iannuzzi run New York?

Let’s hope they hold course. If Cuomo, Tisch and King are bullied into tabling their work, other states will be next. So far they have done exactly what we say we want from our leaders: they’ve stood their ground on a controversial policy shift because they know it is badly needed. They know it’s hard to change outcomes without changing the way we do our work. The question is whether New York is going to be more vulnerable to Tea Party tactics than Washington, D.C.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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