What is the Significance of Issuing a Death Penalty to a Public Institution?

During a speech in Lockport, NY, Governor Cuomo issued a “death penalty for failing schools,” targeting in particular the City of Buffalo. Concretely, the death sentence includes a state takeover of public school districts such as Buffalo, mayoral control of the school district in question, and charter schools, similar to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, when all the teachers were fired and networks of charter schools where imposed, with the help of federal money that favored rebuilding only charter schools, not traditional public schools. Cuomo boasted that he indeed seeks such a drastic measure. According to the Buffalo News:

In response to a question about Buffalo’s low-performing schools, the governor said that such schools — in Buffalo or any other district — should be given a short period of time to improve, “and then something dramatically has to happen, because we can’t allow these failing schools to continue.”

That “something dramatic” has already been proposed by New York State Commissioner of Education, John King. Targeting again Buffalo in particular, last month King told WGRZ-TV:

The Board of Regents has put forward a legislative proposal that would allow the board to remove a school board in a district that is chronically under-performing, and require the appointment of an education oversight board that would be similar to a fiscal control board.”

Typically, such boards have had the power to summarily terminate existing contracts, including collective bargaining agreements, and impose fiscal austerity that will make current funding levels seem lush. Measures to impose privatized forms of education not accountable to any public oversight will be militantly pursued.


It is unclear whether or not Cuomo was specifically signaling support for King’s earlier proposal, but it should be noted that both announcements took place in Buffalo, following the release of the fraudulent Common Core test results used by the New York State Board of Regents to impose mass failure, setting the stage for King’s and Cuomo’s actions.

Buffalo Mayoral candidate Bernie Tolbert supports mayoral control, and policy mechanisms similar to “parent trigger” laws supported by educational privatizers, including the American Legislative Exchange Council. Tolbert appears to be more in line with the King/Cuomo agenda than Mayor Brown. Finally, the Buffalo News reports enthusiastic support for Cuomo’s issuance of the “death penalty” for Buffalo from Samuel Radford III, who is president of the Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council. Although a darling of the Buffalo News, never investigated is his connection with the venture philanthropy education privatization front group, Buffalo Reform Ed.


The Alliance for Quality Education has launched a petition opposing Cuomo’s “death penalty” for public education, noting along with others that there is no evidence regarding the efficacy of these proposals for improving school districts that face the serious difficulties that Buffalo faces — the elephant in the room that educators are attacked for mentioning being crushing poverty — outrage at his issuing the “death penalty” for a public institution is not followed by analysis of the significance of his statement. Presumably, it is rendered mere vibrato to “get a point across”. In any case, I believe the announcement to be significant on several levels.

The death penalty is a sentence that is issued by a court, following a criminal conviction. It is not the role of an executive to issue sentences for crimes, nor convict criminals. So, while readers will want to insist that Cuomo was merely being hyperbolic to make a point, the political context is precisely the emasculation of the framing arrangements of the U.S. system of governance, which include the arrangement of a division of powers among the legislative, judicial and executive. Witness the President of the United States “consulting” with Congress on his plans to attack Syria, when Congress holds the power to declare war. Witness the Presidential authorization of assassinations, the NSA spying. And the list goes on. These and many other trends point to an increasingly limited role for legislative bodies and an increase in power of executive authorities at all levels of government. Cuomo’s utterances suggests a mindset of the Governor as Judge, Jury and Executioner. And King’s proposal in particular gives an executive form of government legislative authority over school districts. Should the legislature pass such a law, they are in effect removing themselves from power, something they have no right to do.

Equally significant is the manner in which the statement indicates the mass criminalization of students and educators. Remember the “death penalty” is a sentence that follows a criminal conviction. Thus, essentially, Cuomo is arguing that performing low on standardized tests is a crime, because what he means by “failing schools” is nothing more than the results of the Common Core aligned tests which were determined long before the tests were administered to students. This harkens back to the days of debtors prison, and the criminalization of poverty. It harkens back to the days when intelligence tests were used to block African American students from receiving an education.

For these “leaders,” the issues is not the quality of education. The issue is that the State will have it no other way, that is, “failure is not an option” should be taken literally: “No matter what you do, we will deem public schools a failure.”

This is a form of entrapment, a set-up where the State organizes and commits the crime against students, parents and educators, blaming the latter for a crime they didn’t commit, rendering something criminal that isn’t properly considered a crime.

On the other hand, the New York State Constitution mandates that a system of public Common Schools be provided. To dismantle these public institutions is a crime by constitutional standards. Instead of upholding his role as enforcing the laws of New York State, which are to be based on the state constitution, Cuomo arbitrarily asserts his role above the law.

Finally, to issue a “death penalty” for public education is an attack on the public itself, rendering public governance and the public itself criminal in nature. Cuomo and those who follow a similar line are essentially arguing that the public itself is the source of current problems, and that public schools in particular should be rendered illegal, criminal. If this trend continues, defending public education will be rendered a crime, just as government whistle blower’s are now being criminalized.

2 Comments What is the Significance of Issuing a Death Penalty to a Public Institution?

  1. Patrick Walsh September 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Thank you for this excellent and deeply disturbing analysis. I will do my best to see it spread as far and wide as I can. Your voice is important . I implore you to continue your writing. Our only hope is with ourselves.

  2. Dino September 10, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I like Patricks Walsh’s point in commenting on Mark’s post, when he suggests that we have to rely on ourselves and can’t rely on others. Indeed, we have experience as parents, teachers, administrators, students and others, and we have interests as parents and teachers and students etc. These State measures and the executive’s efforts to criminalize and discredit our experience and our interests are to drive the dictate that we have no role in deciding. We are to submit to the punishment, with no evidence, no argument or no appeal (to continue with the judicial analogy).
    I think there is an alternative in the public, the people, using their experience and interests to demand to be the decision makers. We can together discuss reality and what we want, and on that basis how to get there. The executive and the interests behind so called school reform have a different starting point and a different agenda. I think the Summit for Smarter Schools on Oct. 2, and all the many serious and thoughtful discussions and organizing efforts around it are an important contribution to advancing a rational and public agenda.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.