Updated Oct. 25
In a presidential campaign during which substantive education policy discussions have received less airtime than the candidates’ anatomies, a panel last Friday in Miami offered unusual insight into how each candidate approaches the subject.
Near the end of an annual gathering of the nation’s large district leaders, Dan Rather led a discussion about education that included a Clinton representative — Mildred Otero, a past Clinton aide and former chief education counsel for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Because the Trump campaign had failed to provide a surrogate for the panel, organizers from the Council of the Great City Schools invited Carl Paladino, the billionaire co-chair of the Trump campaign in New York and a member of Buffalo’s school board.
The superintendents of Miami and Philadelphia, as well as a Cincinnati school board member, also participated. The audience of education leaders may have hoped that the credentials of the panel members would lead to a more thoughtful discussion than the presidential campaign has provided, but Paladino’s blunt, impolitic remarks made a poor case for the Republican candidate, judging by the response.
Melanie Bates, the Cincinnati panelist, said Paladino’s condescending tone — he referred to disadvantaged children as “our minorities” — frustrated the panel.
“The Trump surrogate was warned that he was with a progressive crowd, but wow, I didn’t expect the platform to be laid out that way,” she said. “I thought I was going to have to hold the Miami-Dade superintendent down in his seat.”
In a lot of ways, Paladino is a perfect match for Trump. He’s a fast-talking, brash real estate tycoon from New York who is relentless in taking his opponents to the mat.
Paladino told The 74 that school districts in large urban centers, like Buffalo, are overrun by corruption. But in Miami, he said, the educators weren’t interested in listening.
“I fully expected it,” Paladino said. “I talk truth to power. I don’t have one reservation about saying what’s on my mind.”
I met Paladino last February on a dreary, bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon while writing a profile on Buffalo’s new superintendent. He wasn’t happy; after an interview, he led me to his cluttered office and slammed down a copy of The Buffalo News, which carried an unfavorable editorial.
“No whining” read a sign on Paladino’s desk. But that’s exactly what he was about to do.
He told me “the blacks” on the school board were incompetent at addressing segregated schools in Buffalo (“the armpit of the East”), where the local teachers unions were like “patients running the asylum.” The only way to fix urban education in New York, he said, was to “kill a lot of [expletive] Democrats in Albany” who want to keep students “dumb and hungry.”
In Buffalo, where education politics is often divisive, schools are sharply segregated, and just 16 percent of students read at grade level.
Paladino couldn’t let the editorial go. The piece expressed sympathy for the Buffalo school board’s minority bloc, which had to put up with insults from Paladino, “who is committed to reform but who never learned how to work and play well with others.” The district attorney was suing the school board for discrimination, the paper said, because Paladino had made “yet another needless and obnoxious comment.”
Hardly stopping to take a breath, Paladino, spitting F-bombs, said he called the newspaper to complain. He called the school district’s attorney ignorant, he said, adding that obviously the newspaper didn’t understand his mission “to get some flame going.”
“I’m exposing the underbelly of a beast, an out-of-control, totally dysfunctional institution that was allowed by The Buffalo News to even go on in its dysfunction for years without any kind of reporting,” said Paladino, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2010 and says he plans to run again in 2018. “Everything was just hunky dory, and the district went right down the [expletive] tubes.”
During the Friday panel discussion, Paladino said he didn’t believe Trump would select him as education secretary, adding that he might not necessarily pick anyone from the “education world.” Yet he reiterated many of Trump’s talking points on K-12 education, like his support for school choice and his opposition to the Common Core state standards, which Paladino argued were created by college professors who used to be “pot-smoking hippies.”
Supporting school choice through a “total voucher system,” he continued, Trump would “encourage competition in the marketplace and eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today.” Paladino’s comments were followed by boos.
He said he’d expect Trump to make some “adjustments” to the U.S. Department of Education without going so far as saying Trump would abolish the department.
He also said President Obama wouldn’t allow Arne Duncan, his former education secretary, “to do anything that would make the teachers unions upset,” despite union leader calls for Duncan to resign.
Paladino said on Monday he has spoken several times with Trump about the presidential candidate’s education platform, though not specifically about Friday’s panel. Much of those conversations has focused on vouchers. He said he and Trump, who don’t disagree on anything, sympathize with children who are “held captive in the urban ghetto.”
“We’re sensitive to that child and the inability of that child to escape, because the cycle of poverty is not meant to be escaped from,” Paladino said. “The cycle of poverty is there for a reason, isn’t it? It’s there for a political reason — that is, to keep the voting base of the progressive liberal movement alive and well.”
On Friday, Otero, the Clinton representative, offered something of a reveal into a Clinton presidency, saying the Democratic nominee is “a big supporter of public charter schools,” though she remains skeptical of the for-profit education sector.
For those in the loop on the often-contentious education policy landscape in Buffalo, Paladino’s Miami comments aren’t anything new. In August, he maintained the false claim that Obama is a Muslim. A series of leaked emails about the president prompted cries that Paladino is “flat-out racist,” a claim Paladino refuted. In 2010, Paladino said children should not be “brainwashed” into believing that homosexuality is acceptable.
In response to a leaked video in which Trump gloated about committing sexual assault, Paladino said the candidate was simply “showing his sexual prowess.” An online petition, currently with about 3,000 signatories, has called for Paladino to be removed from the school board.
Earlier this year, Paladino won his reelection bid by only 132 votes against a union-backed high school student who campaigned on civility.
In February, Paladino said he found Kriner Cash, the new Buffalo superintendent, to be endearing. But he expressed doubt that Cash would be able to prompt radical change at Buffalo’s schools because the local teachers union maintained immense power.
“The only real reform in education is when you take the system and you blow it up,” Paladino said, adding that change in Buffalo was stifled by “the impossible challenge of dealing with the union contract” that expired 12 years ago. Teachers and the Buffalo school board reached a new contract last week, an agreement Paladino said was “rigged.”
Editor's note: The article was updated to note that the Council of the Great City Schools hosted the education conference where Carl Paladino appeared, and that Melanie Bates is a board member of Cincinnati Public Schools.