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So-Not a Surprise Verdict

Cuomo found guilty by BTF

It was a former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals who opined, ex cathedrally, that a determined prosecuting attorney can obtain a grand jury indictment of a ham sandwich. Whether his subsequent indictment for stalking a woman and her daughter, and the termination of his legal-practice license, and, of course, his resignation from the court, have any bearing on the judge’s opinion, illustratively or otherwise, may be hard to say. What is clear enough is that almost any ham sandwich would have had a better chance of avoiding “indictment” Tuesday evening at Kleinhan’s Music Hall than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did.

To be sure, the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF)-organized event “The People of New York vs. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo,” wasn’t designed to be any more open-minded than the Chief Judge’s ham-sandwich proceedings. Reportedly the brain child of the BTF’s president, Phil Rumore, the event had some of the flavor, and a few of the trappings, of a stunt, a theatrical political show, but there were an unmistakably serious purpose and a deep reserve of ill-feeling behind it. The “crimes” which the BTF’s “Mock Grand Jury Trial of Governor Andrew Cuomo” was to highlight were his latest public education proposals.

Probably the most heatedly contested item in the governor’s policy initiatives is his proposal that the state’s public school teacher evaluations have a 50 percent basis on the results of the standardized tests administered to students across the state. This was number four in the BTF’s bill of five charges. The other four called Cuomo to account for depriving “our students of the funding necessary to provide them with their...constitutional right to a Sound Basic Education;” underfunding the state’s public colleges and universities; “brutalized our students by forcing them to take standardized tests” that are scientifically unvalidated, used for purposes for which they weren’t developed, particularly with regard to the hasty and ill-administered introduction of the statewide Common Core tests; “falsely” labeling schools and teachers as failing on the basis of the same misused tests; and attempting to undermine local control of schools by increasing the state’s authority to run them, pushing popularly elected school boards and administrations aside.

Rumore and the BTF succeeded in attracting an audience—crucial for what he had planned—of somewhere from 300-400 people, the great majority of them teachers, by all indications. (There was a modest contingent of parents, who shouted out when asked for a response by an MC.) Some may be tempted to dismiss all this as splashy self-promotion by a special interest. There was news coverage, including by the local NPR affiliate, but the Buffalo News covered it neither before nor after, consistent with their editors’ durable, scarcely disguised disdain for the teachers union and Rumore. But the composition of the panel of twelve “witnesses” called by Rumore, as “prosecutor,” reflected the wide, diverse constitution of the opposition to Cuomo and the News’ positions. This was no ragtail group of malcontents, easily and dismissively sniffed at in the newspaper’s executive dining room or the governor’s office. This was a solid, largely professional, middle-class group. (Not to disparage ragtail malcontents.)

There were, to be sure, Buffalo teachers, like Abdulla Al-Jandari, who tries to teach immigrant kids still speaking a foreign language, preparing them for years of tests that are in English, while some of them, as he said, just sit in classes waiting for help that too often isn’t available. But also “testifying” was Erie Community College professor Andrew Sako who called Cuomo out for ignoring state guidelines, according to which only one-third of educational expenses are to come from student payments. 56 percent, he said, is now being borne by the students, or those who don’t drop out.

University at Buffalo education professor Donna Phillips charged that educators have too often been shut out of discussions of educational practice and policy by politicians, with very bad consequences. If Cuomo and company consulted the work on tests by The American Statistical Association and The American Association of Educational Research, he’d find, she said, “They’re not valid for evaluating teachers.”

The last “witness” was former Buffalo school board member and president Ralph Hernandez, who said he perceived a movement in Albany “promoting a takeover of schools across the state.” Cuomo, Hernandez acidly observed, “must have a magic bullet or a special protocol” to improve schools. “Why don’t you share them with the school districts you want to take over?” he rhetorically asked.

“I’m a firm believer that the issues facing schools should be handled by the people most affected by them,” Hernandez said, “Personally, I don’t think it’s about race,” he said, alluding to racial controversies in the educational reform debates. “It’s about privatization versus public schools.” The evening culminated in the result everyone intended, the audience’s indictment of Cuomo (save for one guy who voted to acquit him on the standardized tests count).

The governor’s office has ignored requests for a comment on the charges.

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