Cuomo’s Education Comments Draw Concern From Teachers Union

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announces the partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
(Photo courtesy of the office of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo)

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced that the state has contracted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “reimagine” the state’s education system for a post-coronavirus reality.

Cuomo acknowledged during the May 5 press conference, where he announced the partnership, that the rapid transition to distance-based education across the state was fraught with errors, but suggested a greater reliance on technology might be beneficial even after schools physically reopen.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms— why, with all the technology you have?” Cuomo said. “We have classrooms in this state that have technology where they’re talking to students on Long Island with a teacher from Staten Island with students from around the world participating with technology, hearing that one teacher. When we reopen schools, let’s open a better school and let’s open a smarter education system.”

Cuomo called the former Microsoft CEO, whose net worth is estimated at more than $100 billion by Forbes, a visionary in the field of education while praising the worth his nonprofit has done. Over the past 20 years, the Gates Foundation has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to advance the goals its namesake and primary benefactor feels are essential to improving K-12 education across the United States. The foundation’s website states that it focuses on seven priorities to aid students and teachers, including increasing access to charter schools, improving curricula and providing districts with access to technology.

Representatives from the Gates Foundation declined a request to comment on the details of its arrangement with the state, but told the Washington Post in a statement that it will recommend education experts to aid the reimagining process and contribute insights it has acquired about how technology can benefit education.

This isn’t the first time the Gates Foundation has had a hand in shaping learning in New York. The foundation was a major funder in the project that created the Common Core Standards, whose implementation in the state was met with widespread derision from parents, teachers and students alike.

The foundation’s involvement with Common Core made New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) President Andrew Pallotta nervous when he heard the governor would be partnering with them.

“You just want to hold your head and say ‘not again,’” Pallotta said. “Our experience with the Gates Foundation and their philosophy on education, with the extensive testing and the Common Core—it wasn’t productive for New York State. A lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of money really went down the drain. Bringing back somebody who really wasn’t helpful, we just look at that and say are we really going to go down that path.”

Pallotta, himself a former teacher, said that the NYSUT agrees that technology can help teachers do their jobs more effectively, but stressed the importance of returning to a face-to-face learning model when it’s safe to do so. He also added that an increased reliance on technology to teach during the pandemic has only heightened the gap in education quality between students who can afford electronics and students who cannot.

“Some districts have more resources, and other places around the state where we’re doing distance learning and if the students don’t have an iPad or a computer, it’s really of no value to them,” Pallotta said. “We have really seen just the way poverty and the lack of opportunity in some places has affected the quality of education.”

In addition to the Gates Foundation, Cuomo named a list of 19 officials that will serve on the state’s Reimagine Education Advisory Council. The list includes administrators, teachers and activists from both K-12 backgrounds and higher education drawn from across the state. The council includes two people representing Long Island: Suffolk County parent Jackie Burbridge and William Floyd School District teacher Martin Palermo.

“Like everything else, when we do reopen schools it’s not just about reopening as they were before, it’s about building back even better than before,” Cuomo said. “The collective expertise and experience of this new advisory council will help answer key questions about how we can strengthen New York’s entire education system for decades to come.”

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