Cuomo: Keep Billionaire Hands off Our Public Education System

Cuomo’s Undemocratic Advisory Council to “Reimagine” Education Lacks a Single NYC Public School Educator

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans to work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” the New York school system. He called Bill Gates a “visionary” and questioned the relevance of physical classrooms in today’s tech-laden world. He also tapped former Google CEO and 119th richest person in the world Eric Schmidt to lead a new Blue Ribbon Commission. This is, put simply, an attempt to use the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to push through changes desired by the billionaire class in the education sector. It is a classic case of what author and activist Naomi Klein has dubbed “disaster capitalism,” where crises are used as cover to enact policies that hurt the working class, poor and most oppressed, and benefit the ruling elite. The education announcement came not two weeks after the Cuomo administration announced $10.1 billion in spending cuts to education.

Changes in the public education system, when needed, must come from grassroots movements of parents, students, teachers, unions and other school workers and community members. We have accepted the meddling of billionaires and their strings-attached philanthropies for far too long, to the detriment of our public education system. Schmidt, a man who once said of Google’s $3.1 billion (£2.5 billion) tax avoidance scheme in the UK, “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this,” has no place making decisions about the distribution of public resources for New York families and students. 

If Schmidt truly wanted to be helpful, he would redistribute some of his $14.2 billion in net worth.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has long pushed for the closure of public schools in favor of privately-controlled charter schools. They have spent billions on lobbying for educational reform (about $350 million in 2018), including policies that tie school funding to standardized test scores, weaken teacher tenure, increase charter funding with little to no accountability, and more.

In reality, the biggest change that is needed, as we’ve seen from grassroots movements around the country, is more robust funding for our public schools. A public education system that is appropriately funded and thus fully staffed will have the resiliency to adapt to meet students’ needs in times of crisis. Without the staff, training, and democratic control needed, no number of devices or online services will improve learning outcomes. Our students are already expected to maneuver a number of online services without adequate guidance. Any tech solutions in public education, including the much-needed narrowing of the digital divide, should be undertaken on a publicly-owned, democratically-controlled basis. 

Perhaps in response to the almost immediate backlash against the plans for billionaires to “reimagine” education, Cuomo tweeted “Nothing can replace in-class learning” along with a list of 19 names for the “Reimagine Education Advisory Council,” including: former New York City schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who served under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Interim State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe; AFT President Randi Weingarten; and some district superintendents and university leaders, among others. Notably absent from the council are any current NYC K-12 teachers, principals, or parents, and special education teachers of any kind. Insight into the process used to select these advisory council members also has yet to be released by the governor’s office. But, the naming of Cuomo’s trusted aide, James Malatras, as chair of the council, builds a worrying web of ties between the governor and this ostensibly objective body. 

Many of the problems targeted within the stated initiative are technology-based, and couched in vague terms – “Can we provide educators more tools to use technology?” This technological boosterism is often used as a Trojan horse for political influence, and any technological gifts will likely be accompanied by a push for wider neoliberal educational policy reform. 

Anyone teaching today will be familiar with the many expensive plans to use technology to “fix” the many problems present in the education system. Almost without fail, these come without consulting stakeholders like teachers, parents and students in any real way. Piping in solutions without integrating the actual needs of those within the system often results in the squandering of public funds, while the challenges go unaddressed. Technology can and should play a role in any modern educational system, but must be implemented in a democratic and comprehensive fashion. 

The future of this initiative is yet to be determined. Its outcomes will depend in large part on the pressure exerted on Cuomo by students, parents and workers. We don’t need billionaires to decide the future of our public education system. New Yorkers have already begun to mobilize against proposed changes by Cuomo. Nearly 15,000 New Yorkers have sent letters to Gov. Cuomo. We must continue to build this movement, and organize against attempts by billionaires to gain control and profit during this crisis. We must reject the Trojan horse of billionaire “vision” and philanthropy. We can do this by building a sustaining grassroots, working-class movement to defeat Cuomo’s plans and instead demand the return of their fortune to the public by taxing Wall Street  to fully fund public education — encompassing smaller class sizes, arts classes, mental health counselors, and much more for all New York students and families.