State educators wary of Gates Foundation, but some Buffalo parents ready to 'reimagine education'

May 13, 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week to “reimagine education” in New York State. That move has been criticized by teachers’ unions, administrators and some parents, but some Buffalo families are ready for change.

Cuomo touched a nerve with many educators and parents during his daily coronavirus briefing on May 5.

"You know, the old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms: Why? With all the technology you have?" he said.

Miriam Kagan, a second grade dual language teacher at P.S. #30 Frank A. Sedita Academy, checks in with her students virtually.
Credit Buffalo Public Schools

Cuomo has since clarified that no technology can ever replace in-class learning, but many groups are still angry about his decision to work with the Gates Foundation. That is because it was a key player in developing the Common Core standards and has supported other controversial education policies, like linking teacher evaluations with student test scores.

Some local parents, however, are speaking out in support of the new effort even as the backlash to its announcement continues.

"Parents in Buffalo do not want to go back to a system that has not worked for the majority of parents in this city," said Duncan Kirkwood, a Buffalo parent who cites disproportionate suspensions of students of color and low proficiency rates in English Language Arts and math as evidence that the city’s public schools aren’t working for most students, the majority of whom are black.

He said the nationwide pivot to remote learning has also shown that transformation is possible.

"It shows that in a time of crisis school systems can change, and it would really be irresponsible of us not to explore, in this time, how do we come out of this in a way to move forward better?" Kirkwood said.

That is also what Cuomo seems to be aiming for, even as he also publicly considers cutting state aid for schools by as much as 20%.

"It’s not about just reopening schools," the governor said. "When we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school and let’s open a smarter education system."

Melodie Baker, director of education at United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, talks to WBFO via Zoom.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News

One person the governor is asking for help in order to do that is Melodie Baker, director of education at United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. On Friday, Baker was appointed along with 19 other education leaders across the state to serve on Cuomo’s new Reimagine Education Advisory Council. She is one of only two council members representing Western New York. Katie Campos, partner at Strategic Collective, is the other.

"Oh yeah, there’s a lot of pressure," Baker said.

Even so, Baker said she is eager to make a difference while supporting teachers and public schools, including in Buffalo.

"I’m really looking at this as an opportunity to rewire education in a way that it’s meaningful for our students, for our teachers, for our families, to mitigate barriers and to lucrative careers," she said. "I think that the silver lining in all of this is that we have an opportunity to start over."

As for the Gates Foundation, Baker said she does not have any more information right now about the role it might play. The governor’s office also has not told the council when it is going to start working yet, but Baker does have her own vision of what it would mean to reimagine education.

"I’d love to see smaller classrooms. I’d love to see technology being used within the classrooms in a way to really diversify learning. I see more social and emotional supports, investments in early childhood," Baker said.

And as a working mother, Baker also wants nothing more than to have her children back in a physical classroom come fall.