Cynthia Nixon, right, with Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in 2014 (photo: Ortiz's office)
When actor and activist Cynthia Nixon held her first news conference as a gubernatorial candidate, at a Pentecostal church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, she was introduced by Zakiyah Ansari, an education activist and longtime ally.
In New York’s advocacy ecosystem, Ansari and her organization, the Alliance for Quality Education, have long held prominence in outspoken fashion. The group, a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in 2001 and historically funded by teachers unions, has long offered itself as a voice for parents and communities of color and, as such, has also been a thorn in the side of successive state and city governments, consistently pushing for more funding in the state budget to meet the needs of underserved schools and fighting against school closures and charter schools.
At its founding, AQE provided Nixon a fitting pathway into activism on a cause close to home for the parent of two children currently attending New York City public schools (her eldest child is now out of city schools). For many years, Nixon participated in AQE advocacy, often as a spokesperson, an ideal role for someone skilled in articulation and experienced in performing in front of crowds, not to mention famous for her acting career. Nixon thus provided AQE her celebrity, emerging as a headlining surrogate for its efforts, cutting ads for the group, appearing at its annual fundraisers and regular rallies in Albany and elsewhere.
That activism has now formed part of the basis for Nixon’s primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, a two-term Democrat running for reelection this year.
The Nixon-AQE relationship not only served as her launching pad into education activism in New York, but also for her first run at elected office, with AQE’s main causes -- and the organization and its leaders -- front and center in Nixon’s nascent campaign. In the first week of her gubernatorial campaign, she appeared at two events with AQE.
Nixon’s association with AQE helps her burnish her credentials with voters of color, a constituency that is crucial for a victory in a Democratic gubernatorial primary and that Nixon, as a wealthy white woman, could struggle to attract. Her first official appearance in Brownsville is a testament to that dynamic. At the event, Ansari, who is black and lives in Brownsville herself, said of Nixon, “I’m standing here to say, as someone who is passionate about educational equity, that this woman has been standing side-by-side with us around that, has lent her voice and her celebrity to make sure that she elevates the voice of black and brown parents, because unfortunately often our voices are not enough to get this press out here…Everybody says, ‘I don’t know who she is.’ Well I do. On education, she has been there, a strong champion.”
In a recent interview, Ansari told Gotham Gazette, “I think it’s a statement...It’s a great start to center yourself in a space historically that has black and brown folks and still has black and brown folks.”
It is no coincidence that AQE is supportive of Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo. The organization and its leaders, especially Ansari, who is the advocacy director, and Executive Director Billy Easton, have been frequent and fervent Cuomo critics for many years.
AQE formed in 2001 with a singular purpose: to push the state to meet its obligation of funding a “sound basic education” for children in public schools, as per the New York State constitution. At the time, the state faced a lawsuit filed in 1993 by the nonprofit group Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which argued that the state’s education funding formula was unconstitutional. The case was eventually settled in 2006, resulting in the creation of “Foundation Aid,” a need-based formula for sending funding to school districts. To meet the standards of the settlement, AQE has argued, the state would have to increase school funding by billions.
“That is still our core mission,” said Easton, in a phone interview, “but over time, parents who...really provide the grassroots leadership for AQE have insisted that we broaden our agenda.”
The group is now a coalition pulling from several grassroots advocacy organizations, which together claim more than 150,000 members. They have offices in six cities across the state, and now regularly advocate for an agenda that includes ending the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing funding for community schools and pre-kindergarten programs, and railing against the expansion of privately-run charter school networks, what Easton calls the “privatization” of public education.
“And it includes the understanding that in order to invest in our children, the state needs to put students first, needs to protect kids not millionaires,” he said. “Because we have a governor who is in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, or they’re in his campaign pocket, you know one way or the other you want to look at it. He has been carrying their water for many years.”
Indeed, Cuomo has regularly been criticized from the left for embracing the charter school and education reform movement, with its big-money donors often connected to Wall Street. It is a campaign Cuomo waged from the start of his tenure as governor in 2011, but eased off of in recent years due to significant backlash from teachers unions, suburban parents upset by high-stakes testing, and others, like AQE.
While Cuomo has somewhat made peace with the teachers unions he so often battled with, he has continued to back charter schools and has not met the school funding demands put forth by AQE, either in amount or district distribution. AQE therefore continues to take on the governor, and is unsurprisingly providing support to Nixon in her bid to unseat him.
While it's rhetoric is often particularly acerbic, AQE utilizes a typical array of tactics familiar in the advocacy world, including marches and rallies, op-eds, reports and press conferences, as well as political campaign efforts, both in mobilization of members and allies, and financial. The organization rousts its members to lobby state legislators, often at rallies held in the state Capitol and in New York City, at times on the steps of City Hall or Tweed Courthouse, home to the Department of Education, or in front of another government office or a school in the Success Academy charter network, a frequent target and foe. AQE educates parents about the state’s education system, launches social media campaigns, and hold news conferences to consistently push its message. It has found many allies in Democratic elected officials. But AQE doesn’t have especially deep pockets and expends relatively small resources on direct lobbying or in electoral campaigns, at least compared to the teachers unions themselves or the forces of the education reform movement.
Between 2011-2017, AQE spent $417,987 on lobbying efforts. It also directed funds to an independent expenditure committee called the People for Quality Education, which spent just under $86,000 in the 2014 election cycle (most of it on a political consulting firm) and then fizzled away. That same year, a pro-charter school group, Families for Excellent Schools, spent about $9.6 million on lobbying while the state and city teachers unions together spent $4.7 million.
AQE raises funds from members, nonprofit foundations, and prominent unions, particularly the New York City and statewide teachers unions, though that final funding stream has slowed to a trickle of late. Between 2010-2015, AQE raised about $3.7 million, of which $1.2 million was in 2010 alone, and has spent nearly all of it, according to tax records compiled by ProPublica. According to Easton, neither the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) or New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has given AQE funding over the past two years.
It’s unclear why the teachers unions have pulled back support from AQE, but there are indications that daylight has emerged between the group’s priorities and those of the unions. In a New York Daily News op-ed in February, Ansari and Natasha Capers, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, an AQE-allied group, criticized the UFT for rejecting a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter in education. “The union's rejection of this resolution - which called for more black teachers in schools, an end to discriminatory discipline policies and more diversity in the curriculum — only impedes the school system's progress towards racial justice,” they wrote.
The teachers unions -- United Federation of Teachers, the New York State United Teacher and the American Federation of Teachers -- did not provide comment for this article despite requests.
Past AQE fundraisers show the nexus of their ties with the teachers unions, other labor unions, and Democratic lawmakers.
In 2013, for instance, at their annual “Champions of Education” celebration, the group honored then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, and Ocynthia Williams, a parent, advocate and founding member of NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, another AQE-allied group. Co-chairs of the event included Cynthia Nixon and her wife, Christine Marinoni -- identified in an event invitation as AQE NYC Director Emeritus -- and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and former UFT president.
Other honorees from recent years include Capers; NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference; The Leeds Family; and others, including individuals in philanthropy and advocacy.
Silver, who was later convicted of corruption charges that were then overturned and will be retried this year, was supported by the group for his efforts at pursuing and achieving increased education funding. Silver was also instrumental in securing state funds for universal pre-kindergarten in 2014, celebrated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.
Many prominent Democratic elected officials have appeared alongside AQE, including Public Advocate Letitia James. Both Nixon and Ansari were named to de Blasio's transition team after he won the mayoralty in 2013.
Nixon joined AQE as a volunteer in its incipient years, as a public school parent concerned about the quality of her children’s education, she has said. (She has never been paid by AQE, Easton said, even as she became a prominent, headlining spokesperson for the organization.)
“She was coming with us to Albany when there were no cameras,” said Ansari, who runs the New York City office, “and using her celebrity to help elevate the voices and stories of parents and students that, like myself, have been coming up there for a number of years challenging New York State, to say, ‘When are black and brown kids gonna get their fair share of these dollars?’”
At the 2013 AQE awards, a video shows Nixon addressing the crowd, fired up about AQE’s mission at a time when the organization did not have a friend in the mayor’s office or the governor’s office. “The reason the AQE was founded was initially not to fight budget cutbacks right? It was founded to get CFE implemented,” Nixon said. “And so it is an exciting time to be in New York, to be in the public schools, to be with the AQE and it is a time for us to take our wish list out of the drawer and start going down that list and start going down the bullet points and saying, let’s focus on this one, let’s make this one happen, and then lets make this one happen, and then lets make this one, and this one and this one.”
In the lead up to the passage of the state budget last week, AQE organized a rally in Albany and Nixon, the newly-minted gubernatorial candidate, made an appearance, as she has for years. Showing up at the governor’s doorstep just days after her campaign launch meant the conference was packed with reporters perking up their ears for her next volley of criticism at Cuomo. Though many subsequent reports may have failed to mention AQE by name, and the headlines focused heavily on Nixon’s choice words for the governor, the message of education funding inequity was at part of the conversation and is a pillar of Nixon’s campaign.
“For those of you who don’t know, as Zakiyah said, I have been coming up to Albany for a long time,” Nixon said after being introduced. “I’ve come here with organizers and public school parents and students from across the state to demand public schools in every district get the resources they need regardless of the students’ zip code, regardless of the students’ skin color.”
In what seemed more of a campaign stump speech, Nixon went on to say she had come to Albany “mad as hell” at both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature. She criticized everything and everyone from President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos to Governor Cuomo’s ethical record, the state’s lax campaign finance laws, and the budget negotiation process. “[W]e have gross inequities across the system...Will Governor Cuomo continue to punt on fully funding all of New York’s public schools while children still don’t have adequate resources?,” she wondered.
“Governor Cuomo, when he’s speaking about education funding, he always talks about the average spending per pupil in New York State being the highest of anywhere in the country. But he ignores the reality that...the wealthy white schools spend $30,000 per pupil, or $40,000 or $50,000 or even more. Our hundred wealthiest school districts spend almost $10,000 per pupil and they drive up the average, but our hundred poorest school districts are running a deficit of $10,000 per pupil.”
Three days later, AQE sent out a fundraising email blast titled, “Join Cynthia Nixon and AQE: Fight for Our Schools Right Now!”
“It’s hard for us to get the true message out about the children most impacted by the lack of urgency from the governor and others,” Ansari said, noting that Nixon has lent AQE her voice for well over a decade and that her newfound prominence was also bleeding through. “I would hope that people are paying attention and noticing the people that are telling their stories, that make up AQE, that are the parents and young people that we bring up to Albany all the time, that it’s been 12 years, almost a generation of children have not had access, and I won’t say a generation of children, it’s our most marginalized communities,” Ansari said.
She added, “The goal for us is, and I think has been for her too from the very beginning is, how do I use my celebrity to help elevate the fact that...children have not got access to these dollars in funding and I’m gonna use that to help AQE however I can, and that’s what she’s been doing for 15 years.”
Despite the added attention, the state budget did not meet AQE’s goal of a $4.2 billion increase in school aid, 74 percent of which they say is owed to schools with predominantly black and brown students. In the end, the $168.3 billion state budget included about $1 billion in increased school funding from last year, for a total education budget of $26.7 billion, which Cuomo called “a record” level of funding. AQE called it “entrenching educational racism.”
No changes were made in the budget to how education aid is divvied up to school districts, something even fiscal watchdogs like Citizens Budget Commission have called for, so that state money is going where it is needed most, not to wealthy districts as much as poorer districts. The governor did push through a requirement whereby the state’s biggest school systems will have to report how much funding it is providing to each individual school.
“Governor Cuomo’s policies have caused the spending gap between rich and poor school districts to grow 24 percent to a record setting $9,923 per pupil,” said Jasmine Gripper, AQE’s legislative director, in a statement after the budget passed. “His budget will leave Black, Brown and low-income students in high need school districts further behind.”
Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Assembly education committee, praised AQE for moving the needle on education funding. “I’m a big supporter, I think the world of them,” said Nolan, who was an AQE honoree in 2014, in a phone interview. “I think they bring people to Albany and involve people that would never have been involved. They do great grassroots organizing and really if it wasn’t for them I do not believe that even the minimal successes that we’ve had about Campaign for Fiscal Equity compliance and money would have happened.”
AQE’s critics have argued, however, that no matter the increase in funding, it will never be enough for the group. The funding levels they deem appropriate would put a strain on the state’s finances, they say, and they have not enumerated how that funding should be spent.
“Their premise is that there was a quote-unquote settlement in that [CFE] case that the state has not lived up to,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “The problem for them is that that’s not true.”
Making a similar point that Cuomo has made, McMahon said AQE’s argument is largely flawed because it insists on the “Foundation Aid” formula -- which provides need-based supplemental funding for local school districts -- put in place in 2006 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to meet the state’s CFE funding obligations. McMahon said Spitzer used the CFE decision as a “pretext for proposing an enormous multi-year state school aid increase, which was unsustainable on its face and proved to be even more unsustainable than that once the economy collapsed in the financial crisis.”
School aid, in fact, increased through the recession, McMahon pointed out, because of federal stimulus aid, which ran out by the time Cuomo took office. “And so Cuomo, in his first year and his first year only, cut school aid and ever since then has been increasing it at two-plus times the rate of inflation,” he said.
“They [AQE] kind of exist in a bubble of their own making,” he added. “AQE’s solution is to constantly demand more money and completely ignore the issue that New York spends well beyond the national norm and doesn’t get commensurate results.”
Another top rival of AQE is the charter school sector, backed by wealthy private donors who have been regular contributors to the governor and to legislators friendly to charter schools in the state Senate. Charter school supporters have often targeted AQE as being beholden to its benefactors in the teachers unions, a line of attack that AQE has repeatedly pushed back against, while AQE has decried any shift towards charter funding as a betrayal of the public education system.
James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, called AQE a “front group” for the teachers unions, despite conceding that his organization has one same general goal as AQE: more funding for schools. “I’m never sure why the union doesn’t just advocate on behalf of itself,” he said. “Why are they embarrassed for asking for more money? Why do they need a front group for asking for more money?”
Echoing McMahon’s argument, Merriman said the group needs to articulate how any increases in funding would be distributed and utilized, as he said charters are required to do when they seek state funding. “With charter schools, that’s the entire premise,” he said.
“People are not paying attention if they think it’s just about the money,” said Ansari, who is, as she regularly mentions, a public school parent, mother of eight, and grandmother of three. “Money matters. We know it matters. It matters in rich districts, that’s why they’re willing to pay such high taxes. But they also understand that what needs to happen in their schools for their kids, it’s not about testing…they make sure they have tons of sports programs, art and music, they’re experimenting, they go on trips, they have high-quality this, that, and the other, they have libraries with librarians in them. Is that so much to ask for? Why is it that too much to ask for when it comes to black and brown kids, and it’s always time for them to wait? It’s just never the right time.”
Pictured above: 1) Cynthia Nixon at an AQE event in 2013 and 2) Nixon at an AQE press conference in Albany after announcing her gubernatorial campaign, with Ansari directly behind her