When the federal government rejected New York's first Race to the Top grant application in 2010, NYSUT seized the opportunity to speak out on behalf of students, parents and teachers and helped the state succeed in its second try for the $700 million grant.
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told that story recently at a town hall meeting for educators, parents and community leaders at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, where he was joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
In rejecting the state's first Race to the Top application, the federal government had specifically cited the lack of union support for the proposal, Iannuzzi said.
"To us, that was the challenge and the opportunity," Iannuzzi told the audience of several hundred. "We said we would be more than willing to sit at the table, provided we had a real seat."
NYSUT prevailed and was able to secure the right for locals to bargain collectively the terms and conditions of 80 percent of their teacher evaluation plans.
The town hall event, hosted by the Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association, focused on the discussion by Weingarten and Iannuzzi about the role of unions as advocates for students and communities in an era of education reform.
The meeting was one way to continue to engage communities in discussions about issues confronting public education.
Alison Doughtie, president of the Mohawk Valley CC Professional Association, said members wanted to host the event to offer a counterpoint to two recent movies — "Waiting for Superman," and this year's "Won't Back Down" — that criticize education unions and their schools, depicting them as insensitive and resistant to change.
"Most of our students come from public K-12 districts in the state, and we have many success stories here to tell," Doughtie said. "We think it's time others heard them, too, so we invited members of the community to campus to hear some of what NYSUT is doing."
NYSUT is gaining national recognition for its innovative work as a partner in education reform. The statewide union representing 600,000 members routinely sponsors public forums that bring together educators at all levels; it is taking the lead in developing a fair evaluation model for teachers; and is working with the State Education Department on new ways to prepare future teachers and school leaders.
"The one thing NYSUT did, that no one else did around the country, is that NYSUT has created a voice for parents and teachers," Weingarten told the gathering.
Both unions have criticized the state's overreliance on high-pressure standardized testing in the name of education reform.
NYSUT locals around the state are meeting with parents' groups in their districts to get feedback from families about the time their children spend, and the anxiety they feel, preparing for and taking standardized tests.
Being able to hear directly from parents helped shape NYSUT's position on standardized testing in testimony before state lawmakers, SED officials and the New NY Education Reform Commission.
While NYSUT believes standardized testing can be one useful diagnostic tool among many for teachers, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira noted in testimony that "using these tests for promotion and graduation has increased the stress on students and parents."
"There's nothing about NYSUT's principles that are contrary to what parents want," Iannuzzi told residents and educators at the Utica meeting. "The goal is the same — how you reach that goal is the critical part."