How the winner of the Cuomo vs. Nixon race for New York governor could shape education policy

Voters head to the polls Thursday for New York's gubernatorial primary.

Education seemed destined for the spotlight in New York’s gubernatorial election, with a longtime school-funding activist facing off against a governor whose school policies have shifted significantly during his tenure.

But after a debate with almost no mention of the topic, and campaigns that focused more on crumbling transit systems, schools have taken a back seat in this year’s New York gubernatorial primary election between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.

Still, whoever wins Thursday’s vote is widely expected to take the governor’s mansion and have enormous influence over education, which at $27 billion is the largest category of state spending.

Here is what your vote could mean for the state’s 2.6 million students — and for schools in your own neighborhood.


Cuomo: The governor points out that school funding has increased under his watch (including a $1 billion boost last year) and says the state should focus on how current funding is distributed to minimize inequities. That was one of the reasons Cuomo pushed for school districts, including New York City, to more quickly release data on how much money each school spends per student.

“The real issue is the distribution of that money,” Cuomo said earlier this year. “We have an education inequality problem in this state.”

Nixon: The actress best known for her role on “Sex and the City” traces her decision to run for governor all the way back to her time as a school-funding activist and her championing of a lawsuit that argued New York State did not provide students with a “sound basic education.” The lawsuit was ultimately successful in court, but Nixon and other advocates say the state has never fully complied with its terms.

So it’s no surprise that a key pillar of Nixon’s campaign is infusing schools with $7 billion  in additional funding, financed by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, with the goal of reducing class sizes and hiring more counselors and teachers. It’s a proposal backed by some recent research that shows even though New York spends more per student than any other state, more funding would still boost student achievement.

Asked about the her plan’s expensive price tag, Nixon said: “You know what? It is and it should be.”

Charter schools

Cuomo: A beneficiary of donations from pro-charter groups during past campaigns, Cuomo came into office vowing to expand the charter sector and did. There are 253 charter schools operating across the state, according to the New York City Charter Center, a roughly 43 percent jump since 2010. (He was even named a “champion for charters” by a national charter school organization.) This support, along with his push to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, strained his relationship with teachers unions.

But Cuomo has said little about charter schools during this campaign and it is unclear what his vision for them is going forward. And he has largely made peace with the state’s teacher unions (though they still declined to endorse him).

Nixon: For her part, Nixon’s education plan does not mention charter schools — something her campaign has sometimes characterized as a distraction from her plans for district schools. More recently she has said she doesn’t believe they are truly public because they are privately operated.


Cuomo: You can expect Cuomo to continue to tout the Excelsior scholarship, which he has billed as a first-of-its-kind “free college” program that covers tuition at two- and four-year state schools for some New York residents. The 2017-2018 academic year was the first of a three-year phase in, with about 22,000 students benefiting from the inaugural round of funding. Over this year and next, Excelsior will expand to cover more middle-class families, with the income requirement shifting upwards to ultimately include those making $125,000 or less.

But Excelsior has been consistently criticized for serving few students, and leaving out the most needy. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future found that only 3 percent of the state’s undergrads received the scholarship in its first year. Experts blame the program’s strict credit requirements and other eligibility rules for shutting many students out. Excelsior is currently a “last dollar” program, meaning it only pays for tuition costs that aren’t already covered through other aid programs. Since many poor students already get their tuition bill paid through programs such as Pell Grants, they often don’t benefit from Excelsior.

Nixon: The scholarship rules could change under a Nixon governorship. She has proposed to limit the scholarship to families making $80,000 or less, and said she favors a “first dollar” program that would cover tuition expenses first, leaving poor students to use other financial aid programs for other college costs. Her plan would also lower the credit requirement from 30 hours to 24 hours, according to her campaign.

Mayoral control

Cuomo: De Blasio’s control of city schools is up for renewal in 2019, giving Albany a major bargaining chip over the city in the next legislative session. Cuomo has said lawmakers should address mayoral control alongside the debate around admissions for specialized high schools.

Mayoral control was on the verge of lapsing in 2017, until de Blasio struck a last-minute deal for his first two-year extension of power (lawmakers had previously granted only single-year deals) in exchange for concessions on charter schools.

Nixon: Nixon has suggested a different approach entirely: extending mayoral control permanently.  

Specialized high schools

Cuomo: New York City’s specialized high schools have come under sharp scrutiny for being starkly segregated, with critics pinning the problem on how the sought-after schools admit students. De Blasio has launched an effort to scrap the exam that currently serves as the only entrance criteria, replacing it with a system that offers admission to top students in city middle schools. That would require a change in state law.

De Blasio’s hopes largely rest on the state Senate flipping to Democratic control, but it will ultimately be up to the governor to sign any legislation that may come forward.

Cuomo, who has constantly butted heads with de Blasio, could give the mayor a hard time. He has suggested that any admissions changes should be a part of larger education discussions, including whether the legislature should extend de Blasio’s control over city schools.

Nixon: On the other hand, Nixon has come out in support of a bill that would make the mayor’s proposal a reality. In fact, Nixon seems to go even further than de Blasio.

Her education platform seems to echo the position of many advocates: that the SHSAT is only enshrined into law for three of the eight schools that use the exam. Many say de Blasio could nix the exams at five of the schools — without support from the state legislature. But the mayor’s team has raised legal questions about that.


Cuomo: Accusations that the city’s Jewish religious schools don’t offer an adequate secular education have long been a cause of controversy for de Blasio. But the schools could become a headache for Cuomo, too, should he remain in the governor’s mansion.

Cuomo received the endorsement of a politically powerful Brooklyn rabbi last week — reportedly after promising not to interfere with the religious schools, which have been the subject of a controversial investigation into whether they are flouting New York law. The governor’s office did not confirm or deny whether he made the comment, but a spokesman told Gothamist that “the governor has no role in this matter as schools are regulated by the state Education Department.”

State law requires private schools to provide a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools in exchange for public money. After a slow-running investigation that took three years, city officials recently released a report that found attendance was voluntary at some yeshivas during secular subjects like English, and that students received little instruction in math and science.

It’s unclear what sway the governor could have over the issue. A recent change in state law means that the New York education department will decide how to proceed.

Nixon: It’s also unclear what Nixon’s leadership would mean for the city’s yeshivas. She declined to comment on the topic when asked about it this summer, and her education platform does not make any mention of religious schools.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 6 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.