Never Waste a Crisis

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

On April 11, 2020, with his school chancellor Richard Carranza standing beside him, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City’s schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year to limit the spread of coronavirus infection. Almost immediately thereafter, Governor Andrew Cuomo dismissed this announcement as “One opinion. There has been no decision on schools,” he said

In ordinary times decisions about school cancellation – for snow days, for example – are routinely made locally. Unlike in most of the rest of New York State, where elected boards independent of municipal government provide local school governance, the city has a “dependent” school system, one that is a part of city government. The mayor appoints the city’s school chancellor. So in New York City the local authority is the mayor’s. 

But these were far from ordinary times. The governor was asserting his authority on school closing based upon emergency powers, recently enhanced by the legislature, to suspend any state or local laws or regulations for successive thirty day periods to deal with the pandemic.  On March 13, he issued an executive order suspending the requirement for 180 days of instruction and ordering all districts to close their schools no later than Wednesday, March 18, 2020, for a period of two weeks, ending April 1, 2020. This order was renewed on March 27 and then again on April 16, set to expire May 15. Cuomo announced the statewide closing of schools for the remainder of the year two weeks later, on May 1.

Reacting to this latest manifestation of bad blood between the governor and the mayor, pandemic-weary New Yorkers could not be blamed for wondering: “Again? At least in addressing this crisis, why can’t they just get along?” However commonsensical this view, history tells us that it is best received as an expression of frustration, not a realistic expectation. For there is nothing new here. Over the decades, in good times and bad, New York City’s mayor and the state’s governor have clashed far more frequently than they have gotten along. 

The real lesson to be drawn from this incident is not from who’s fighting, but from what they’re fighting about: the delivery of public education.

The current governor and mayor may not like each other. But their differences are not just a matter of bad chemistry. They are systemic and structural. New York City and New York State are two of the five biggest governments (in size of budget) in the United States. The city has the highest proportion of its state’s population of any in the nation. The governor and mayor serve millions of the same citizens, living in the same place, often with undifferentiated expectations. Persistent political, policy, fiscal and legal clashes are inevitable. 

The real lesson to be drawn from this incident is not from who’s fighting, but from what they’re fighting about: the delivery of public education.

Almost a century ago, sweeping constitutional changes created the framework for modern state government in New York. The governor was fully empowered as a chief executive, with authority to appoint most department heads, subject to State Senate advice and consent. There were just three exceptions. Two departments were to be headed by other statewide elected officials, the Attorney General and the Comptroller. The Department of Education (SED) was to be headed by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, who were elected by the state legislature.  The Regents in turn were to appoint the commissioner of education to be the chief administrative officer of the department. (The constitution initially provided an exception for the head of the Department of Agriculture, who was not to be appointed by the governor until authorized by legislation. This was done in 1935.)

It is precisely because reform was so thorough that this exception is so important. The New York State Constitution requires the legislature to “…provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools.” Though they gave way in virtually every other area of policy, legislators were unwilling to change the state constitution to put control of education policy in the governor’s hands.  

Aid for elementary and secondary education in New York State for FY 2020 was budgeted at just under $36 billion, accounting for about 20 percent of annual planned state spending.  Though their budgeting authority certainly gives New York governors significant influence, almost all have lived unhappily with an education department they do not control, charged by law with “…the general management and supervision of all public  schools and all of the educational work of the state…” Andrew Cuomo is no exception.

Now, as we’ve seen, the emergency powers he is exercising to deal with the pandemic offers him a way in. In addition to closing schools, executive orders from Cuomo included extensive directives to local school boards and the SED. For example:

“School districts shall develop a plan for alternative instructional options, distribution and availability of meals, and child care, with an emphasis on serving children of parents in the health care profession or first responders who are critical to the response effort. Such plans shall be submitted to the State Education Department and may be amended or modified by the State Education Department, in consultation with the Department of Health and Office of Children and Family Services at any time.”

Moreover, in accord with his theme that New York not seek to restore the pre-coronavirus status quo but must “build back better” as it reopens, the Governor on May 5, 2020, announced a collaboration with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” in the state, with a focus on the use of technology and virtual learning. (The Gates Foundation is controversial in NYS educational policy circles and with educators themselves because of its advocacy of charter schools and the use of testing to measure teacher performance.) Membership of a task force appointed by the governor to inform this reimagining, augmented by some initial critics, was announced soon after. 

Still, something of a backfire seems to be developing. Independently, the state education department announced its intention to create its own “statewide task force made up of educational leaders, including superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, school board members and other stakeholders, to guide the reopening of our schools.”

In dealing with education during the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to have embraced the advice of former White House Chief of Staff and Mayor of Chicago Rahm Immanuel: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste…. [It] is an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.” And in doing so, the governor may be taking still another step in rebalancing powers in state government, in favor of the executive, in New York.


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