Though the headline had it that New York State gubernatorial favorite Andrew Cuomo “Vows Offensive Against Labor Unions,” what he actually told the New York Times this week was much gentler. On the other hand, despite the power of the Empire State’s unions, Cuomo is surely not running as an old-fashioned tax-and-spend Democrat. In a 90-minute interview, he “for the first time laid out his strategy to isolate, destabilize, and ultimately defeat the tangle of entrenched interests that has left state government bankrupt, infamously dysfunctional, and mired in scandal.”

Historic budget deficits and angry, tax-weary citizens have a way, like guillotines, of focusing the mind and so the presumptive governor is already talking about “how to use a crisis.” This could prove to be an opportunity for Empire State education reformers. Cuomo says he will continue to tinker with the education aid formula—something begun in earnest by Republican George Pataki—and send more money to poorer districts. OK. But he also hints that he would cut overall spending in areas like education while taking a page from the Obama/Duncan play book and creating “pools of bonus money” (the Times’ phrase) that could be “won…in public competitions.” 

Given the fiscal condition in which New York finds itself, Cuomo has little choice but to talk tough about the budget, which means talking tough about labor. All of this, of course, is no music to the ears of the 600,000 strong New York State United Teachers. In August, NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi told the Albany Times Union that “you know, he’s been a strong supporter of education, of labor and social justice in the past, but when we look at his positions now—especially on issues such as tax caps, constitutional convention and the size of the public work force—we have serious issues.” 

While this little dance continues (NYSUT surely wouldn’t support GOP challenger, Carl “I’ll take you out, buddy” Paladino), the state’s education reformers have been working the politics of the education issue. When Cuomo wanted to meet members of the hedge fund crowd, seeking donors for his campaign, he was consistently pointed to Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform. With these connections, the budget ax falling, new Race to the Top funding for change, and a progressive Education Commissioner and Regents Chairman, it may be a perfect storm for reform.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Fordham’s blog, Flypaper

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