NYSUT intern Johnalyn Scarati contributed to this story.
Universal pre-kindergarten; improving the access to college for low-income students; and more state support for the state's public colleges, universities and hospitals were among the topics NYSUT members and leaders addressed during the Feb. 16 gathering of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.
Discussions throughout the day coincided with the conference's theme: By helping New York's most vulnerable residents with education, health care and access to services, all New Yorkers will benefit from a better-educated workforce and a stronger economy.
"We've had the conversation about pre-kindergarten for many, many years now, " NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira told a large audience. "Funding the infrastructure is one essential component, but we also have to hone in on the fact that kindergarten is not mandatory in New York state, and make sure that we understand the educational development of 4-year-olds."
Differing plans on how to fund pre-kindergarten have been put forward by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who favors a tax on the city's wealthiest residents, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed $1.5 billion in state funding in the next five years to cover pre-K. NYSUT strongly supports universal pre-K, and has urged adequate state funding for all eligible children. But NYSUT has also noted that the governor's plan may not meet the need throughout the state. Along with funding concerns comes the question of physical space for such a large program, as schools may not have the room to accommodate so many children. Community centers or other public buildings might be used, but would have to meet the very specific code and safety issues required for use by school-aged children.
By some estimates - which were discussed at the Caucus panel on which Neira appeared - as many as 56,000 children in New York City alone might enroll in pre-K, with as many as 74,000 children in the following year, as word of the program reaches more parents.
NYSUT leaders and members also appeared on a panel that focused on a number of issues from NYSUT's Public Higher Education Quality Initiative. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the NYSUT affiliate at the City University of New York; Candelario Franco, United University Professions chapter president at SUNY Old Westbury; and Cheryl Hamilton from the UUP chapter at SUNY Stony Brook, participated in a panel discussion about improving access to higher education for students of color.
"When resources are limited, they get concentrated into only a few programs," Bowen said. "If we want to tackle access, we have to tackle funding, and funding is a problem of race, gender and class."
That is particularly true at CUNY, where the majority of students are women who come from families with an annual income of less than $30,000. As NYSUT and the PSC have said in their advocacy for more state funding for all public higher education, New York's public colleges and universities have been a route out of poverty for thousands of New Yorkers.
Shirley Patterson from the UUP chapter at SUNY Downstate Medical Center participated in a panel on health care. SUNY's teaching hospital in Brooklyn is the flagship campus of the Downstate Medical Center, and NYSUT and UUP have been working for three years to keep that hospital open, accessible and public. The executive budget proposed a state subsidy of $69 million for the SUNY hospitals. Three years ago, the hospitals received $128 million.
NYSUT leaders will make their case for the state's public higher education and teaching hospitals in meetings with key lawmakers Feb. 26 during NYSUT's higher education advocacy day. Check with your chapter or NYSUT's Member Action Center - which can be found on the at the www.nysut.org homepage - to find out how you can participate in that critical effort.