December 2011
November 20, 2011

Unions fight for education funding, jobs

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, above, speaks to protesters at Occupy Albany, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, about the need to adequately fund education, to create jobs and to reform tax codes. Photo by El-Wise Noisette. [VIDEO]

When $1.3 billion was cut from New York's schools last spring, Jacquie Owens of Cicero was grateful the North Syracuse Early Education Program at Main Street School was not eliminated. The program was cut, so the Friends of the NSEEP Inc. raised money to cover the shortfall.

Last month, Gov. Cuomo notified state agencies to prep for another 2.5 percent cut in aid next year, and Owens' worries began anew that state aid to education could be further cut. She fears the ax is poised to fall over the area's lone centerbased preschool special education program, where teachers, therapists, nurses and support staff have been cut through the years from 100 to 65. North Syracuse schools have cut 200 jobs over the past 5 years.

"Everyone understands that early education is a good thing, but what legislators don't understand is the chance for children to overcome poverty and disability as well as save money in the long run on therapy and intervention services," said Owens, a parent whose firsthand experience with the program is detailed in Rosie's story at www.nysut.org/Rosiesstory.

There are lawmakers and legislative staffers in Washington D.C. who understand the value of education, from preschool to post-graduate, said Phil Cleary, who teaches in the Main Street School and is a member of the North Syracuse Education Association. Last month, he and other members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association met with President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to discuss strategies for the passage of portions of the American Jobs Act. "They needed examples of how schools impact the community to keep fighting for restorations," Cleary said. "NYSUT members need to know that our lawmakers in D.C. are not giving up. They vow to keep fighting because it's the right thing to do."

The AFT, NEA and NYSUT, as well as a number of NYSUT's statewide coalitions, promise to do the same. They keep pressing lawmakers to pass portions of the Jobs Act as a way to restore education funding. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have both supported the efforts in the U.S. Senate. At press time, one bill that moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives would provide tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed veterans, and training and educational opportunities at community colleges and technical programs.

The bill's passage would be welcome news for higher education. New York's state and city university systems and community colleges have been cut by more than $1.7 billion since 2008, weakening offerings for higher education learning across the state.

"Resources are tight, but we cannot afford to not invest in public higher education," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta in testimony before the state Legislature this fall. "The state has to realize that funding public higher education is a smart investment that will pay dividends." Meanwhile, at the pre-K-12 level, education cuts have meant more than 7,600 fewer educators in classrooms this year, on top of cuts in previous years, causing larger class sizes and cuts to essential services.

"In these troubling times, overcrowded classrooms and the loss of essential services such as psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors are having a devastating effect," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. This year's cuts also have impacted arts, music, sports, librarian services and Advanced Placement programs in a number of districts.

Pallotta noted that school aid, currently at $19.6 billion, is essentially the same funding level as in 2007- 08 when the state Court of Appeals ruled the state had violated its Constitution by failing to provide all students with a sound, basic education.

Two coalitions, Strong Economy for All and Growing Together New York, are working in an umbrella campaign called 99 New York that supports fair taxation to fund services for New Yorkers. Adequate funding for education, the advocates say, will help stabilize the economy. Studies show that funds from public employee salaries stay in the communities of those employees.

In the meantime, Jacquie Owens' volunteer fundraising now seems more like a full-time job. "Grateful parents like myself started the Friends of the North Syracuse Early Education Program Inc.," Owen said. The group was created to offset deficits years ago. Now it is an incorporated non-profit that raises funds all year long to fund the program that serves more than 270 preschool children.