March 2011
February 21, 2011

With future at stake, NYSUT activists speak out

Author: NYSUT United staff
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: It's standing room only as hundreds of NYSUT members get materials for a day of advocacy. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Students, educators, parents, and union and community activists are sending a concerted and forceful message to the Legislature: Don't Erase Our Progress.

In rallies, Web videos and blogs, postcards and meetings with lawmakers in their home district offices as well as at the state Capitol, NYSUT members are speaking out against devastating proposed cuts in state support to public education, from pre-K to post-grad.

"For whatever reason, our voice has been marginalized and it's time we talked back loudly," said Ben Alexander, an English teacher from the Jordan-Elbridge Teachers Association.

Alexander was one of hundreds of grassroots activists who traveled to Albany for NYSUT's Extraordinary Committee of 100 advocacy day, organized as part of the union's wide-ranging campaign on behalf of public education. Alexander said the Jordan-Elbridge district would face a funding shortfall of more than $1.8 million, a huge sum for a district highly dependent on state aid. Administrators have discussed program and staff cuts to make up the difference.

"We put value on things based on how much we support them and pay for them. So to say we value education as we're cutting it is a farce," Alexander said.

Representing the worst proposed cuts in a generation, Gov. Cuomo's budget would set education funding at $19.4 billion, relying on massive cuts to close a state deficit of $10 billion.

School districts across the state would face more than $1.5 billion in reduced state support, the lowest level since 2006. The State and City University systems would see aid reduced by more than $180 million — a disinvestment of nearly $1 billion in the last three years.

plan, proposed by Cuomo and passed by the state Senate, and a plan to allow an income tax surcharge on the highest earners to sunset, would put schools in an even more desperate situation — coupling unimaginable cuts in support with severe limitations on revenue.

If Cuomo's budget proposal is enacted, more than 13,000 education jobs could be lost statewide, compounding the loss of more than 10,000 positions last year. Those staffing cuts would also result in dramatic program changes.

While in Albany, educators emphasized the human toll the devastating budget proposal would have on districts across the state. Thomas Basel, a member of the Association of Poland Teachers, said students would lose the school's College Now program, where they can earn dual high school and college credits. They would also lose electives, and in some cases, class size would go up by a third.

If the aid cuts are enacted, the 75-to-80 member Poland local "will be down to about 60," Basel said. He would be responsible for teaching between 140 and 160 students himself. Two teachers would be responsible for social studies instruction for all students in grades 7 through 12.

"If things don't change, it will be grim," said English teacher Sharon Collins from the West Canada Valley TA.

In testimony to a joint legislative hearing on K-12 education, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told lawmakers the cuts as proposed would "hollow out the quality of public education for years to come. The state's share of school funding would fall to 39 percent — the lowest level since 1993-94," Pallotta said. "If these cuts are enacted it will be as if the historic Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit never happened."

The CFE case spurred the creation of the state's foundation funding formula that aims to implement a fairer system and ensure the neediest students receive increased state support.

Pallotta was joined in his testimony by two public school students, Victoria Argyros and Maya Williams.

Williams, a junior from Schenectady, told lawmakers she worries for the students coming behind her. "Last year they cut a lot of the advanced and gifted and talented programs that I was a part of when I was younger that absolutely prepared me for where I am today," Williams said. "A lot of the younger kids won't have the same opportunities that I had."

Argyros, a junior from Comsewogue on Long Island, is already feeling the effects of budget cuts from last year. Her Advanced Placement English language course has 35 students in what is supposed to be an intense seminar.

"Two to three programs have been cut already," said Argyros, including a women's history elective she was planning to take.

Pallotta said a No. 1 priority is getting out the message on just how devastating the proposal would be to communities and the next generation of students.

"We have a very limited window to impress on legislators how horrendous this proposal is. These cuts would hurt each district, each region. It would take years to recuperate from this devastation — if ever," Pallotta said. "You don't restore New York by destroying it. If we are to be a part of this knowledge-based economy, we must build our education system."