ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has enlisted the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in an effort to “reimagine” education, sparking almost immediate backlash from teachers unions and education advocates Tuesday.
The Gates Foundation has a long and contentious track record in supporting education initiatives across the country and in New York, leading projects focused on establishing the Common Core learning standards and exploring teacher evaluations based on student test scores. Those efforts have stirred backlash from parents and teachers across the country.
But during his daily press briefing on Tuesday, Cuomo announced with few details a partnership with the philanthropic organization bearing the name of one of the world’s richest couples. Cuomo said the pandemic may present a unique opportunity to rethink how the state teaches its children, emphasizing a list of questions primarily focused on utilizing technology in new and different ways.
“It’s not just about reopening schools,” Cuomo said Tuesday. “When we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school and let’s open a smarter education system.”
Cuomo said the state would work with the Gates Foundation “to convene experts and develop a blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal,” but didn’t specify how that process would work or who would be involved.
The state Education Department has announced its own plans to establish a task force of school and district leaders, teachers and other stakeholders to develop recommendations for reopening schools safely. That committee is expect to be set up in the coming weeks. It’s not clear how that effort will relate to the new work with the Gates Foundation Cuomo announced Tuesday.
Cuomo’s announcement, though, was widely panned by litany of teachers, parents and education advocates.
“Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said in a statement responding to the governor’s remarks. “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state.”
The union’s statement did not reference the Gates Foundation directly, but the state’s teachers unions have long been critical education reforms championed by the foundation and Cuomo. The statewide union has also called for increasing taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents in an effort to raise money to support schools.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, on Tuesday said it was hard to react to an announcement made in the middle of a press briefing but pointed to the need to include educators in any groups making plans of how to remake the education system.
“It will be a big mistake if they don’t seek the advice of those of us in public education in terms of what our kids need,” Benaquisto said. “The people who know how to shift public education are the people who are living it right now, the teachers, students and leaders in public education.”
Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an organization that advocates for education equity, said Cuomo and the Gates Foundation both “have a history of pushing privatization and agendas that have the potential to destroy public schools.”
“This collaboration raises a red flag and real questions about what shape our ‘reimagined’ public schools will take post-pandemic, and whether they will be recognizable as public schools at all,” Gripper said. “We need to reimagine schools with smaller class sizes, where children will be able to thrive in a classroom environment that is safe and nurturing.”
While the details of the partnership remain unclear, Cuomo did outline a list of questions he said would guide the work with the Gates Foundation. The questions included how to use technology to expand opportunities for students, how to use technology to serve students with disabilities, how to provide teachers more tools to use technology, how to better recreate the large classroom environment remotely and how to use technology too reduce education inequality.
“The state will ring together a group of leaders to answer these questions in collaboration with the Gates Foundation, who will support New York State by helping bring together national and international experts, as well as provide expert advice as needed,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.
In the Gates Foundation’s annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates acknowledged the challenges they have faced in their education initiatives over the years and suggested their goals are to enable educators and others working in the education field to develop new ideas.
“We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too,” Melinda Gates wrote in the organization’s annual letter earlier this year. “Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders.”