January 15, 2010

Talks continue on proposed changes

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: New York Teacher
Caption: SED Commissioner David Steiner and NYSUT?Vice President Maria Neira are in discussion following a recent meeting of the Board of Regents.

[Update 1/29/2010: New York State Education Department posted New York State's Race to the Top Application to its web site.]

As New York Teacher went to press, NYSUT leaders were engaged in round-the-clock discussions about the best ways to advance student learning in New York state — discussions sparked most immediately by the state's looming deadline to apply for up to $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

The broad principles contained in the State Education Department's plan to reshape public education are ones the statewide union has long supported:  Strengthening academic standards and assessments. Supporting teacher and principal effectiveness. Building a quality data system that teachers can use to enhance instruction. Turning around low-performing schools. How to translate those broad objectives into specifics —through quality proposals that advance student learning and are fair to educators — is, of course, the critical issue underneath every debate.

And "this is just the beginning of intense debate and conversation that will continue through state budget deliberations and through the federal reauthorization of ESEA," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "It is essential to be at the table, not because we agree with every specific, but precisely because we need to weigh in, vigorously and specifically, on how plans such as Race to the Top affect children and educators. It is vital for educators to take charge of our professions and to take the lead in strengthening public education at every level."

The most immediate manifestation of the public debate is the Jan. 19 deadline looming for states seeking Race to the Top funds. While the over-arching principles of RTTT are laudable, NYSUT leaders have serious concerns with many specific elements of the plan. Neira, along with NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, have been engaged in round-the-clock conversations with education and legislative leaders on how to build on the plan's strengths and fix its deficiencies. Among the legislative specifics that NYSUT opposes was the push by Gov. Paterson to lift the cap on charter operators without making necessary reforms to fix longstanding problems with funding, fairness in how students are enrolled and financial accountability. (See related article.)

The $4.35 billon Race to the Top national grant program is designed to encourage and reward states "that are creating conditions for education innovation and reform."

"NYSUT wants New York to gain these additional RTTT dollars and believes we are already in an excellent position to do so," said Iannuzzi. "Changes need to make sense for students and not be rushed through."

Iannuzzi and Neira, who represents the statewide union to the Board of Regents, were engaged in intensive conversations with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commissioner David Steiner about ways to build on the plan's positive elements and fix its problems.

Neira noted that the state's RTTT proposal appropriately recognizes that teachers should be central "in leading the way in developing new standards for our profession." Neira said it dovetails with a NYSUT initiative being piloted with a grant from the American Federation of Teachers. "We have a commitment from SED to work collaboratively in developing teacher standards," she said.

The statewide union also has been working closely with local presidents who were being asked by their superintendents to sign a "memorandum of understanding," which is not binding and does not supersede collective bargaining agreements, on their district or school RTTT plan. NYSUT is developing materials to assist local unions with the implementation phase, should New York receive an RTTT grant.

As of Jan. 11, the SED reported receiving 802 Memorandums of Understanding — or MOUs —from districts (656) and charter schools (146). Of those MOUs, 406 received local union support.

Tisch recognized NYSUT leaders for their continuing commitment to be at the table to discuss and help shape details of the sweeping reform agenda to do what's best for students and educators. Over the next few weeks, she said, SED will continue to work with NYSUT as details evolve in the proposals included in New York's application.

Steiner said the state Education Department intends to move forward with a reform agenda, with or without Race to the Top funding.

"The pace of reform will undoubtedly depend on available resources, but we must be aggressive in seeking additional federal funds and figuring out creative ways to better leverage existing resources," Steiner said. "The status quo is deeply unacceptable."

If New York is one of the winners in the first round of the Race to the Top, notification is expected in April.