On November 22, 1787 what we would call a mini-blog or an op ed appeared in a popular New York City newspaper, the Daily Advertiser, the article was signed Publius, a pseudonym for James Madison. The essay began “To the People of the State of New York” and discusses the impact of factions. The essay was one of eighty-five essays published from October into August all advocating for the citizens of the state to approve the referendum on the Constitution; we now call these essays “The Federalist Papers.”
The essay is particularly relevant today.
A few years ago the National Governors’ Association, a faction, commissioned and adopted what they have called the Common Core Learning Standards. With the strong support of the Obama/Duncan administration, and billions of federal dollars, states were strongly encouraged to implement the standards. New York State is an early and vigorous adopter. The annual grades 3-8 standardized tests required under No Child Left Behind, embedded the Common Core Learning Standards, and, only a third of kids received a “proficient” grade on the exams, in previous years two-thirds, twice the number of kids, scored “proficient.”
Another faction, parents began to push back, in meeting after meeting standing room only crowds have challenged the State Education Department and the Board of Regents. After a particularly raucous meeting the Commissioner blamed “special interests” for the angry nature of the meeting. In spite of attempts to control the attendance at the meetings the anger continues unabated.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan inflamed the debate with ill-advised comments,
Duncan said he found it “fascinating” that opponents include “white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – (discovered that) their child isn’t as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
A classic clash of factions has emerged, on one side the elites, the governors, state departments of education and the federal bureaucracy, on the other, parents.
One hundred and twenty-six years ago James Madison faced the same question: how does our proposed new constitution deal with the potentially fatal issue of factions. Madison mused,
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations … Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time? …. And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.
Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.
Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States
In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.
While Madison warns again that “Men of fractious tempers” may “betray the interests of the people,” the response of the people has reached the proper ears. Andrew Cuomo, the enigmatic governor.
After protests around the state over the new tougher Common Core curriculum, Gov. Cuomo appears to have taken note. Speaking on Staten Island Monday, he called significant “elements” of the transition to the curriculum “problematic.”
“It’s something we’re watching very closely, and it’s something that might be the subject of legislative changes next year,” he said, while noting the state Education Department is not under his authority.
“It’s not anything that I control, so we are watching it.” (really Andrew…)
In November, 2014, the governor and the state legislators are on the ballot. The once very popular governor has seen his approval ratings slide. his approval ratings dropped below 50% for the first time in September. While Cuomo’s popularity has waned, the political axiom, “you can’t beat something with nothing” prevailed; there was no strong republican candidate, until November 6th.
Ron Astorino, the Westchester County Executive was re-elected in a strong democratic county, as well as the Republican country executive in Nassau County, areas that appeared in the governor’s camp a few months ago.
While the election is almost a year away totally unexpected issues are beginning to emerge: the Common Core, testing and the privacy of student personal information.
The anger, the vitriol directed at Commissioner King is beginning to be directed at elected officials – can the governor be far behind?
While Cuomo tries to deflect, “it’s not my job,” the issue will only grow. Republicans will point to the “big dawg” on the mansion on the hill.
Education in New York State is not a gubernatorial or legislative function, the 18th century state constitution delegates education to the members of the Board of Regents, elected by the state legislature. Let’s not be naïve, while the members of the Regents on paper set educational policy the legislature and the governor fund education.
Within weeks members of the legislature will begin to introduce legislation, usually just a way to assuage constituent anger. Of the more than 10,000 bills introduced into the Assembly in a session only a few hundred become law. The introduction of bills will not suffice.
The Commissioner has remained firm, “stay the course” and the Regents have shown little interest in discussing moving away from any of their current policy initiatives.
A simple way of taking the issues off the election table is to admit the state has moved ahead too quickly, and toll the impact of the exams for two years – a moratorium on the impact of state exams.
On the national scene the AFT President Randi Weingarten has called for moratorium for months, without any interest on the part of the Commissioner.
In a few weeks the “moratorium” cry will move from a request by the teacher union to the jungles of election politics.
Typically politicians, and the Commissioner and the Regents, whether they agree or not, are politicians, they are elected to their positions, move incrementally. As Madison, so presciently wrote, “it is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
The embers could easily become a conflagration, and the governor is fully aware of the potentiality.
“And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?”
The survival instinct drives policies and politics, hordes of raging “suburban soccer moms” are far more powerful that the faction at the National Governors Association.
No matter whether the Common Core will change the face of education, or, is an untried set of standards foisted on schools, the conflict of factions and the wraith of the electorate will drive policy, as it should.