Governor Cuomo and Public Education: Wall Street, Conservatism, Milton Friedman, and the ‘Third Way’ of Governance

By Thomas J. Fiala

I think America, and in particular New Yorkers, need a more exact definition of New York Governor Cuomo when it comes to public schools and education reform. I think that in spite of his supposed political mantle seen by many as a champion of liberal thought and action, when it comes to America’s democratic institution of locally controlled public schools, he is certainly a neoliberal conservative loyalist.   Clearly, Governor Cuomo loves the conservative neoliberal ideas of Milton Friedman when it comes to dismantling America’s democratic institution of public education.   What might even be scarier for those who support locally controlled democratic public schools, is that Cuomo is continuing the tradition of “third way governance” by Democrats begun by the Bill Clinton Administration. As Diane Ravitch stated in a speech in 2014 , “I am absolutely furious that the Democratic Party has merged with the Republican Party around a bipartisan agenda that is actually a Republican agenda.”

Four years earlier in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Ravitch had explained how “Bill Clinton and the New Democrats championed a ‘third way’ between orthodox politics of the left and the right.” So what is this ‘third way’ of governance, and how does Governor Cuomo, a political clone of this Clintonesque approach to running society and who seems intent on proceeding along the neoliberal path of education reform, go about making his pact with Milton Friedman and the billionaires of corporate Wall Street when it comes to privatizing America’s democratic institution of public education at the expense of Main Street?

If you want to begin to get a simple handle on his notion of the ‘third way’ check out the writing of William Black. As Black explains “Third Way is not a liberal think tank. It’s not even a ‘think tank.’ Third Way (at least in America) is a creature of Wall Street.” The goal is to privatize what is now public. Often third way devotees choose to take a liberal position on certain issues such as gun control or gay rights, but when it comes to Wall Street, privatization and making cash, in the case of education reform the ‘third way’ devotees are able to put a price on the head of every child while claiming that their approach to school reform also demonstrates how making cash can also help those students who just do not measure up academically. Cuomo is, indeed, a Clintonesque ‘third way’ type of guy!

Now understand he is also a devotee of the conservative libertarian economist Milton Friedman when it comes to education reform. He may not say it outright, but when one looks carefully at his views and comments about public schools and education reform, it’s almost impossible to conclude otherwise. What we find is that the NY Governor, when it comes to school reform is a Friedmanomics Neoliberal!

Neoliberalism is something for which everyone should become familiar. It’s complex when you start looking into it, so if you’re just beginning this educational journey, think about it as an intellectual imperative all Americans should understand – a least a little bit! There are many many, sources that discuss neoliberalism and in particular the education ideas of Milton Friedman, although my bias comes out when I suggest reading “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free market Became Public Education Policy,” and particularly Chapter Three, “Friedmanomics, School Vouchers, and Choice.   Nevertheless, when it comes to public schools, conservative neoliberals (like Milton Friedman and Governor Cuomo) believe that the institution of American public schools is a government monopoly and a reflection of a socialist state. Therefore, it needs to be destroyed through privatization – or at the very least, challenged by creating a perverse competitive environment in which the supposed free market creates a raft of often unregulated alternative approaches to educating America’s children, regardless of whether the efficacy of these approaches have actually been substantiated. So what neoliberal thought rests upon as Milton Friedman made clear, always understanding that neoliberal is actually conservative in nature, is that you take advantage of a crisis, and then make radical changes to address it.  In the case of education and public schools, a neoliberal like Milton Friedman, and his followers like Governor Cuomo, base their actions on the “manufactured” crisis that the entire public school system in America is failing. This all started with the infamous report A Nation at Risk in 1983. Now if you want to get a handle on why this report is really an obfuscation of the truth, and in particular if you actually believe what has been promulgated about public schools since 1983, then you have to read stuff! Blogs are OK, but real analysis is better. This takes some work and intellectual dexterity – but overwhelmingly most Americans can do this if they put their minds to it!  Again there are some good books out there that begin to destroy this myth, for example Berliner and Biddle wrote a book in about 1995 called the “Manufactured Crisis,” and again my bias leads to me suggest reading “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.” There are other books out there that address this topic to one degree or another, but as they say – Knowledge is Power. However, gaining knowledge does take a little effort.

Now let me be clear. I do not believe this neoliberal take on public schools – so I do not agree with people like Milton Friedman, who passed away a few years ago, and Governor Cuomo who carries on the education ideas of Friedman. I believe that America’s locally controlled public schools are a manifestation of democracy in the best sense of the American experience through which efforts are made to help all Americans get a good education. These schools, as we all know, take on the challenge of overcoming many of the hurdles that have stood, and continue to stand, in the way of a child getting a good education. Yes – we are talking about those factors like social class, race, lack of jobs, crime in neighborhoods, drugs – well – I’m sure everyone reading this can add to the list! Now let’s get down to the “nitty gritty” of Cuomo’s assault on the institution of locally controlled public schools!

The fact that Governor Cuomo claims that his $150 million or so tax credit now being proposed is somehow a reflection of what is in the best interests of the profound notion of the American public is a cunning political ploy. That’s what I believe and I am not alone in thinking this. `

It seems that when the educationally conservative, neoliberal, Wall Street devotee Governor Cuomo makes claims such this, for many, it is like putting “lipstick on a pig.” It is a shameless attempt to hoodwink America – and in particular New Yorkers – into believing that the Governor is the great Democratic egalitarian – fighting for the rights of Main Street over Wall Street. Unfortunately, when a person takes this approach to education, once again we see, in the case of preserving the democratic institution of locally controlled public schools, it is hard to serve two masters – making money and helping public schools. This is getting to sound a bit Biblical, but that is not my intent. Somehow the Governor believes that New Yorkers – and the rest of America – are going to believe that his “choice approach” to education reform would make him Mr. Egalitarian when it comes to education. I, for one, do not believe that the majority of New Yorkers – let alone Americans in general – are going to buy his education snake oil. By now everyone should know that the Conservative Cuomo – a person I believe is a neoliberal conservative when it comes to following the money and education reform – sees public schools as a monopoly that needs to be “busted.”

He said this even before he was re-elected last November – and God knows why so many teachers, teacher union leaders, and supporters of public schools are now shocked by his current actions! Take a look at this video.   What is really indicative of his loyalty to Milton Friedman’s ideas about education is his view that locally controlled public schools are a monopoly. If he is NOT an anti-public schools ‘third wayer’ who does NOT see locally controlled public schools as a pillar of our republic – and if he is NOT a devotee of Milton Friedman neoliberalism – then I must be a guy smoking my Crayola’s! Trust me – I am militantly against smoking Crayolas no matter what the color! That’s what I am seeing in this video anyway! Most shocking is that I also see an important defender of America’s public schools passively sitting as Cuomo assails this long honored American institution! As a former public school teacher and a former member of the AFT governing board within the school district in which I taught, this kind of inaction both saddens me and infuriates me. Do some teacher union leaders actually believe that America’s democratic institution of locally controlled public schools is nothing more than monopolistic entities that need to be destroyed?   Do locally controlled public schools need competition to meet the challenges these schools face on a daily basis? Challenges such as those associated with social class, money, and the historical reality of racism in America, poverty, and lack of jobs in many communities where historically marginalized individuals and groups often reside, communities in which good families and their children must face the daily challenge of crime and drugs that impede their daily lives?   Do these public schools need competition from charter schools that can easily send those students and their families back to the public school when they cannot measure up – or do not live up to the contracts they sign before being allowed into the charter school? Do these public schools need competition from private schools who will be able to take public tax money away from public schools and use the funds to finance their curricular and social views – without public scrutiny?    I support the right of private schools to exist and flourish! Does it make sense, however, to send one’s education tax money to a private school – whether non-sectarian, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever other kind may pop up as a result of “free market entrepreneurship,” without some kind of public control over what is taught in these type schools? Everyone needs to think about this, including the private schools who might think about taking public money for their private school. Do New Yorkers really want to support school vouchers in their state even if it is disguised as a tax credit for billionaire donors? This is what Governor Cuomo wants!

One thing is sure. Governor Cuomo, when it comes to education, is a neoliberal conservative that sees locally controlled public schools as a monopoly that needs to be “busted.” He takes a Clintonesque ‘third way’ governance approach to running education in the State of New York. He favors Wall Street over Main Street under the guise that big money folks must be allowed to engage in making even more money as they supposedly go about helping New York’s children.   Now if only the media can get Governor Cuomo to acknowledge all of this, and in the process do their job in helping inform the democratic electorate about what is really at the root of Governor Cuomo’s course of action when it comes to New York’s locally controlled democratic institution of public education. However, I am not holding my breath that this will happen. In any case, that is my definition of Governor Cuomo when it comes to public schools in New York. One thing must happen Governor Cuomo, if a school is publicly funded, then it MUST be transparent in all they do and held up to public scrutiny! Or is this just too “democratic” for your political ‘third way’ of governance?

Mmmm? I wonder how Hillary feels about all this – let alone those dozen or so Republican presidential hopefuls that seem to be sprouting everywhere like dandelions this time of year?

The United States is not Alone in Fighting Misguided Free Market Education Policies: Great Britain’s Struggle to Maintain Local Authority Over Their Schools

Unfortunately, Great Britain seems to be following the Friedmanomic playbook when it comes to education policy in spite of mounting evidence that these policies inevitably lead to an erosion in local control over schools, a devaluing of the teaching profession, and corruption by those who see education as a steady stream of profit for business entrepreneurs.  And, according to the The Guardian, this is in spite of the fact that British citizens do not overwhelmingly support free market education policies.  In an article entitled “Poll shows opposition to education reforms” (, Tom Clark and Rebecca Ratcliffe explain that “The biggest single structural change to English education … has been the rapid conversion of secondary schools into semi-independent academies.”  British academies are the U.S. equivalent to charter schools.  As in the United States, the invention of these schools was engineered by the liberal party, New Labour (Bill Clinton brought us federal government endorsement and funding for charter schools).  As Clark and Ratcliffe explain, the British brand of charter schools are “autonomous from local authorities while being funded through private contracts.”  Only 32% of the British citizens polled prefer the conversion of schools to academies.  According to the article’s authors, the “stampede to academy conversion” is being led by Conservative voters.


An attack on the teaching profession in Britain also seems to mirror the teacher hate that has become the norm in the U.S.  In 2012 academies were given the right to hire teachers who had not received formal training as professional educators.  This policy is aligned with Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan’s Race to the Top policies that favor Teach for America and other alternatively certified teachers. According to article authors, 63% of those polled felt that “teaching is a profession the requires dedicated training.”  Only 33% felt that “people with different career backgrounds should be welcomed into the classroom, to expand the teaching talent pool.”


As in the United States, corruption revolving around free market contracted schools is on the rise.  Guardian reporters Warwick Mansell and Daniel Boffey ( revealed that academy schools run by Rachel de Souza received advanced notice before her schools were inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.  Of course, this is highly possible since de Souza had previously been appointed as an inspector for this office.  And she used the advanced notice to warn students to watch their behavior over the coming week, get all the paperwork in order, and plant teachers who had never taught in one school before to teach model lessons.  These efforts earned de Souza’s academies the highest ratings by inspectors.


I urge British citizens to heed education policy in the U.S.  Micah Uetricht was absolutely correct when he wrote for The Guardian in 2013 an article entitled “Chicago is ground zero for disastrous ‘free market’ reforms of education” (   It will be a very long time before the U.S. is able to disentangle itself from the Friedmanomic education policies that are leaving our country’s federal education system in shambles.  The process of systemically reforming the U.S. education system to reflect the free market economics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began in the 1980s.  Since then, every presidential administration in the U.S. continued with the same failed notion that free market ideologues are the best authorities to decide education policy.  In the U.S. we like to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and treat them accordingly.  Sadly, what we’ve ended up with is the wild west of education policies and education reformers who envision education as a gold rush through privatization.  My book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy details the decades long campaign to privatize public schools in the U.S.

Governor Cuomo, a Friedmanomics Devotee

Diane Ravitch posted the following commentary on New York Governor Cuomo on her blog:   Her posting references a New York Daily News article entitled “Cuomo will push new teacher evaluations, vows to bust school ‘monopoly’ if re-elected”  This is a clarion call to all public school supporters.  I, for one, appreciate Cuomo’s open declaration about where he stands on public schools, teachers, local school boards, and children in the state of New York.  He is touting the “company line” — or, rather, the “corporate line” — when it comes to education policy.

Right out of the Milton Friedman Friedmanonics free market playbook, Cuomo declares that public education is a monopoly!

Clearly, a vote for Cuomo for governor is a vote against public schools and a vote for corporate education reformers who envision RTTT as a way to make a lot of money in the education arena.  This is hard for me to write.  I am a Democrat.  However, I can never vote for someone who is promoting teacher hate and a disdain for locally controlled public schools.  It’s time to reclaim our public schools America!

The Conservative Mind and Education Reform

Thank you, Andy Smarick, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, for your commentary on the role of conservatism in education reform (Change and preservation in education reform, August 6, 2014).  Apparently, Smarick and Michael Petrilli (the newly appointed president of Fordham) are wrestling with the education policies their organization helped engineer in partnership with corporate interests and presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) in recent decades.  Once again, the conservative lens is being employed to sort out the debacle that has culminated in the current state of education policy with all its accoutrements —  the Common Core, an explosion in student testing, massive data storage systems, value added measurements for teacher accountability, and, last but certainly not least, a free market driven system that ensures the free flow of dollars to the private sector through charter schools and products associated with RTTT education reform policies.

Smarick wonders if education reform is “inherently anti-conservative” and if things might “be better if we sought counsel from conservatism?”  He refers to an article by Phillip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs entitled “The Conservative Governing Disposition.”

Smarick discusses the “conservative governing disposition,” citing several of the conservative’s favored political and economic thinkers and philosophers and concludes that a conservative governing disposition embodies a belief that “change ought to advance gradually… .”

While Smarick may be thinking about current education reform initiatives when suggesting that our country should have proceeded more cautiously and circumspectly in adopting the widespread sweeping reforms associated with the current administration, it is simply wrong-headed to look longingly back to conservative thinkers and wonder how much better education would be if we’d heeded their advice.  Smarick would be wise to consider the seminal works of conservatives like Albert J. Nock, Russell Kirk, and Murray Rothbard (to name a few).

In chapter 2 of my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core:  How the Free Markets Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015), I examine the ideas of several conservative thinkers on education policy.  For example, Albert Nock, writing in the 1930s, believed that “the progressive theory of ‘educational equality’ that undergirded America’s education system was particularly troubling because he felt it was based on a socialist model that created a ‘perverse’ popular doctrine leading people to believe that ‘everybody is educable.’”  Russell Kirk (considered a giant of conservatism and revered by President Reagan), likewise considered America’s public school system to be a reflection of “a socialistic federal government in collusion with progressive educators …”.  Murray Rothbard continued the conservative assault on public education in the 1970s, claiming that one of the major problems associated with public schools arises from compulsory education policies.  According to Rothbard, children who are “dull” and “have little aptitude” should not be forced to even attend school because it is a “criminal offense to their natures.”

Are these the conservative people we should be heeding?  Or are these the voices behind A Nation at Risk during the conservative Reagan era that lead the all-out assault on public education and teachers?  I think the latter.

In a previous posting, Smarick attempts to distinguish between free market advocates and the true conservative mindset, claiming that free market ideology is only “one strand of conservatism.”   I disagree.  I find the ideas that undergird free market economics — the supremacy of property ownership and the restriction of government intervention through taxes or regulation — to be an enduring theme throughout conservative thought.  Nonetheless, President Ronald Reagan, the icon of conservatism in America, embraced the free market ideas of Milton Friedman wholeheartedly and ushered in the era of laissez faire, free market policies that have governed our public policies across many sectors since the 1980s.  Friedman’s tenacity in promoting school vouchers, choice, and their latest iteration — school charters garnered him the title “the father of modern school reform” and his Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice continues to advocate for a free market, conservative approach in education reform.

And what of the conservative notion that change is best when it takes place gradually?  Conservative advocates of maintaining the Plessy v. Fergusen “separate but equal” policies certainly embraced that notion when they attacked the Brown v. Board decision in 1954.  Southern segregationists found a home among conservatives during their widespread resistance to desegregation of their public schools.  As a matter of fact the conservative National Review (William F. Buckley’s publication) published an article in 1958 by Anthony Harrigan lauding the “essential conservatism” of the south.  According to Harrigan, “The South … has an essential conservatism …. The original shapers of the Southern tradition believed that progress resulted not from equality of condition, but from fruitful inequalities.”

Let us not forget the terrible price American citizens had to pay while segregationists embraced essential conservatism.  A number of Americans were denied their right to vote, beaten, and even murdered.

In the 1950s Milton Friedman arose as a hero to segregationists when he advocated for the use of tax vouchers to send students to segregated private schools.  For Friedman, the fact that his idea was being embraced as a way to maintain segregated schools was not really a problem.  He believed that “the appropriate activity for those who oppose segregation and racial prejudice is to try to persuade others to their view, if and as they succeed, the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.”  That sounds very conservative.  I suppose Ruby Bridges’ parents should have taken more time to “persuade” angry white segregationists to allow their daughter to attend the all-white William Franz Elementary School before sending her to school.  Same with the Little Rock Nine.  Friedman persistently referred to public schools as socialist institutions and government monopolies.  As a matter of fact he generally didn’t use the term public schools, referring to them instead as “government schools.”

I would, therefore, urge Andy Smarick to think more deeply about the conservative notion of gradual change.  We may agree about  the current RTTT debacle.  However, it is wrong to begin with an assumption that these reform initiatives are those of progressives or liberals.  There are no clean hands.  When it comes to education reform the apt metaphor may well be “hands across America” as one presidential administration handed off its policies with very little change to the next administration.   And the momentum kept growing with each new administration since Reagan, adding layer upon layer of policies.  The glue that has held the opposing parties together has been the conservative ideal of the free markets and competition as the arbiter of education policy.  And the biggest winners have been those who have financially gained the most from this era of free market education reform — big business and venture capitalists.

I wonder if we removed the profit incentive from education policy how much better our schools could become?  Even those involved in the “non-profit” charter school movement seem to be getting quite fat off the backs of America’s school children.

I’ve spent several years examining the impact of free market ideology on education policy — policies that have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans since the era of “Reaganomics” and “Friedmanomics.”  The result is “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”   I completed research for this book with one certainty.  Until education policy makers disavow themselves of market based reforms and cast the money lenders from the temple of public education, we will not have true reform.  Our challenge is, therefore, attempting to disentangle ourselves from the mess that has been created in recent decades and get back to the real work of schools — teaching our children to be informed, compassionate, well educated citizens.



Deborah Duncan Owens, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).

Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in Education” in Robert A. Solo (ed.), Economics and the Public Interest (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955).

Anthony Harrigan, “The South is Different,” National Review, (March 8, 1958).

Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th revised edition (Washington D.C.: Regency, 1985).

Albert Jay Nock,  The Theory of Education in the United States.  (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2007).

Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (reprinted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 1999).