Ahead of the New York Primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Agenda Shifts Left in Bid for a Third Term Against Progressive Rival Cynthia Nixon

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo answers a question as primary opponent Cynthia Nixon looks on during a debate at Hofstra University August 29, 2018 in Hempstead, New York. (Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images)

By David Cantor

EDlection 2018: From coast to coast, The 74 is profiling a new campaign with major implications for education policy each and every week. See all our recent profiles, previews, and interviews at The74Million.org/Election (and watch for our Election Night live blog Nov. 6)

With a commanding lead and $24 million in his campaign treasury, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to be closing in inexorably on a third term.

But in a season of agitated partisanship, the powerful and risk-averse Cuomo has tacked left — if you can imagine an aircraft carrier “tacking” — to keep up with much of his state. On education, that means distancing himself from policies he once touted.

“He’s not going to lose the general election in this climate to a Republican,” said Bradley Tusk, a political strategist who managed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successful campaign for a third term. “His greatest risk in the primary comes from the left, not from upsetting hedge fund managers,” who have pushed for more school choice and limiting teacher tenure while heavily funding Cuomo in past campaigns.

Cuomo’s best-known Democratic challenger, former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon, has been unable to build on her base among New York City progressives, and trails by 41 points heading into Thursday’s Democratic primary, according to a new Siena College poll of likely voters. The multiple Emmy and Tony Award winner had $440,000 on hand heading into the campaign’s final week, an amount Cuomo could spend 55 times over. But her celebrity, along with the emergence of insurgent U.S. House contender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has helped channel local aversion to President Donald Trump and energize the polyglot progressive left in the New York City area.

The president’s 38 percent approval rating in his home state is among the lowest in the country, according to the research firm Morning Consult.

A Nixon spokeswoman likened the race to Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected primary win, telling The New York Times that polls “are missing the new electorate — people of all ages and races who have traditionally sat out the primaries, but are now energized to fight for radical change.”

Nixon has campaigned on hot-button issues like immigrant rights and reproductive freedom, but she also connects with her base on school funding, the issue she cut her political teeth on as a New York City public school parent and advocate.

“She sees education as a differentiator between her and the governor,” said Nicole Brisbane, director of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform in New York. Nixon only briefly mentioned school inequalities last month during the campaign’s single debate, opting instead to spar with Cuomo over leadership and character issues.

Nixon wants to increase funds for early learning and, like many Democrats, supports a less “criminalizing” approach to student discipline. Her ambitious education plan calls for a $4.2 billion spending increase for poor schools based on a state budgetary formula, called Foundation Aid, created in response to the ruling that New York City had been shortchanged billions in school funding.

These dollars have never been fully paid, sparking years of recrimination between Cuomo and advocates. Among them was Nixon and the coalition of labor-backed groups with whom she works — including the teacher union-supported Alliance for Quality Education, which Nixon was a spokesperson for and her wife, Christine Marinoni, formerly led. The governor’s supporters have noted that New York spends $22,366 per student, more than any other state, and pointed to education funding increases of $1 billion this year and $1.1 billion the year before.

Nixon’s plan doesn’t mention charter schools, but she criticized Cuomo in the spring for “taking charter school hedge fund money and making education policy accordingly.” Last week, she told the New York Daily News editorial board she doesn’t consider charter schools to be public schools, in part because they are privately run. Her position was criticized by the paper, which noted her New York City alma mater, Hunter College High School, is also a privately run public school, one that screens students for admission, unlike charter schools, which accept students through lotteries.

Nixon says she would pay the $7.4 billion total cost of her plan by hiking corporate taxes and instituting a “millionaire’s” tax (affecting those earning at least $300,000). But Cuomo called any effort to raise taxes on wealthy residents “dead on arrival” last year when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed paying for subway repairs that way.

Related: 4 Things to Know About New York’s $1 Billion Bump in Education Spending

“No one thinks more money is a bad thing,” says Brisbane. “So she wins on that from a talking point standard even if it’s not politically sound or financially sound.”

Other races could have more education impact

A more substantial change may occur in down ballot races. Democrats are considered likely to win a majority in the state Senate, for years a hive of support for education reform, especially the expansion of charter schools, and of opposition to de Blasio. The mayor’s rejection of the Bloomberg reform agenda and his failed effort to help elect a Democratic majority in 2014 earned him what has proven to be lasting enmity among some Senate leaders.

That feeling undoubtedly contributed to the way the Senate extended de Blasio’s control over New York City schools, meting out one or two-year renewals rather than the six-year extension they gave Bloomberg — and often waiting to the last minute to convey the news.

With a rump group of Democrats who voted with Republicans now disbanded, and given an expected leftward tilt by voters, the Senate could join the heavily Democratic Assembly as a force for school change.

“There could be post-election pressure on Cuomo regarding school finance,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. It depends on the outcome of the Democratic primaries, he suggested.

“I’m not talking about a Democratic majority in the Senate, I’m talking about a progressive majority in the Senate,” he said. “There could be progressive pressure pushing the Democratic Party further to the left than Cuomo is comfortable with.”

De Blasio should have an easier time in Albany, which could mean help from legislators in tackling the specialized school admissions test should he make it a priority. Lawmakers would have to agree to rewrite a 1971 statute that mandates the test, which has come under increasing attack for racial bias, as the sole criteria for entry into the city’s elite high schools. Whipping a majority in favor of the change is considered far from a sure bet.

Related: Regifted: The First 7 Questions to Ask About Mayor de Blasio’s Ambitious Plan to Integrate New York City’s Specialized High Schools

“If you’re de Blasio, the prospects in Albany next year should be brighter,” Tusk said. He added: “With that said, Cuomo’s hatred of de Blasio isn’t weakening anytime soon so the odds of him giving de Blasio a victory on anything aren’t high.”

De Blasio has been friendly with Nixon for years but announced over the weekend that he would not endorse either candidate..

The Democratic winner will face moderate Republican Marc Molinaro, a former state legislator (and mayor of his hometown at 19) who currently serves as Dutchess County executive. Molinaro is seen as a straight-shooter who will contrast his leadership with Cuomo’s scandal-ridden tenure, reports say. His education positions are under-articulated, although he asked then-New York state Education Commissioner John King “to fully reconsider Common Core standards” in 2014. Former Syracuse mayor and longtime Cuomo foil Stephanie Miner is expected to make a third-party bid.

Neither Cuomo nor Nixon responded to requests for comment.

Cuomo moves left

Cuomo was never among the more ardent state leader in support of Obama-era school reforms, but he is adept at responding to political shifts. In 2012, with New York two years into a $700 million federal grant for implementing Obama education reforms like opening more charter schools and making teachers accountable for student test results, Cuomo announced in his State of the State address that he would take “a second job” as “lobbyist for the students.”

“I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy,” Cuomo said.

Fierce opposition to measuring teachers using tests stymied that approach. He was more effective in facilitating a 2014 deal guaranteeing public space to charters in New York City, which also offered the chance to foil the charter-unfriendly de Blasio. In July, investor John Petry contributed $45,000 to Cuomo’s campaign, the fifth-largest gift from an individual in 2018, according to state financial disclosure forms. Petry, who helped found Democrats for Education Reform, sits on the board of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools.

Still, Democratic activists acknowledge they have been less outspoken in support for charter schools since the Trump education department adopted school choice as its marquee reform.

Cuomo has moved forward on other fronts. His Excelsior scholarship initiative to help middle-class students pay for state or New York City college tuition was touted in January as “the nation’s first accessible college program.” But only 3.2 percent of undergraduate students in New York have received an award thus far because of strict enrollment rules and the provision that funds become available only after other aid is exhausted, according to an August 2018 report. Nixon has repeatedly criticized the plan and has her own affordability package.

In April, Cuomo was on board with an Assembly proposal that would have prevented districts from having to measure the effectiveness of teachers with test results — in effect, supporting a bill to stop the practice he started. The measure was held up in the Senate and did not make it through before the end of the legislative session.

A 2015 labor protest against his policies led union leaders to deride his “toxic education agenda” and demand, “Gov. Cuomo, you keep your hands off my Collective Bargaining Rights!” In June of this year, by contrast, when the Supreme Court handed down its Janus decision allowing public sector workers to receive union benefits without paying mandatory fees, Cuomo countered with an executive order making it more difficult to leave the state’s unions. Labor chiefs saluted his “unyielding support for labor rights.”

An effort by Nixon to cultivate labor appeared to backfire after her proposal to give public workers the right to strike, including first responders and police, was criticized by de Blasio and some union leaders. Nixon was forced to backtrack, but a spokeswoman said she still intended to give the right to teachers, transit, and sanitation workers.

Cuomo found a particularly photogenic opportunity in March to underscore his new friendliness with teachers unions while expressing support for stronger gun control. He joined in a demonstration spurred by the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, chanting “Enough is enough” with students and — after years of tense relations with teachers unions — lay down alongside American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a “die-in” in the city’s Zuccotti park.

Weingarten joined other Democrats over the weekend in criticizing a campaign mailing by the state Democratic Party that called Nixon“silent on the rise of anti-Semitism.” Sent just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it falsely alleged Nixon supported the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and opposed funding for yeshivas.

“Cynthia is no anti Semite. It’s a baseless lie,” Weingarten said in a Facebook post with Sharon Kleinbaum, her wife and the rabbi of the New York City synagogue Nixon attends.

Cuomo said he hadn’t seen the mailer and called it “a mistake.”

“The way I ran this campaign, it’s been on the issues, it’s been positive,” he said.

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