March 27, 2015

Educators to legislators: 'Don't throw us under the bus'

Author: Liza Frenette
Caption: Activists swarmed the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol Thursday night. Photos by El-Wise Noisette.

From near: University at Albany, Cohoes, Guilderland, Troy, Glens Falls

From afar: Gouverneur (four hours north) Saranac Lake (two-and-a half-hours north)) and Lancaster (four-and-a-half hours west).

Parents, teachers and union activists drove from there to here yesterday for the NYSUT rally at the Capitol. They did it on 24-hours notice, embracing a very long day for the opportunity to speak out. Higher education is hurting. Testing is costing schools precious money, while more programs are being lost to lack of funding. Local control is being threatened.

More than 1,000 chanting people belted out support for legislators who are not giving in to the governor's greedy demands. They let Gov. Cuomo know his tactics against public schools are known as thinly-disguised efforts to privatize and profit for himself and his long-time hedge-fund supporters.

Left to right: Barry Trachtenberg, University at Albany; Bret Benjamin, University at Albany; Laura Wilder, University at Albany; ; Jolie Benjaminn, pre-K student.

Bret Benjamin, English professor at UAlbany and chapter president for United University Professions, rallied with his partner, English professor Laura Wilder, and their daughter, Jolie Benjamin. Together, he said, the trio represented pre-K through the university's higher ed doctoral program.

All of them are under siege.

In 2003, Benjamin said, the state provided 60 percent of SUNY operating expenses and now it is a weak 37 percent. The rest has fallen on students "checkbooks and credit cards."

A five-year hike that has added $300, $600, $900, $1,200 and $1,500 to existing tuition has scalded students so badly that they recently voted in a referendum to eliminate their entire student activity fee, said Barry Trachtenberg, history and Judaic studies professor and vice president for academics for UUP's Albany chapter. Due to issues with the voting process, a new vote will be held April 1-3.

If the fee is defeated again, UAlbany would no longer have student-sponsored campus speakers, campus-wide student events, a college newspaper or many other activities, Trachtenberg said.

UAlbany's teacher education program is also under attack, as are other similar programs at other SUNY schools. Students finishing their teacher education program are now being asked to pay for four separate exams ($300 each, payable to the for-profit company, Pearson), videotape themselves in front of students while teaching and send in full portfolios of all their work.

Where does it go to? Why, Pearson of course.

"Then they own all the information and can use it to develop their own curricula," Trachtenberg explained. Schools of education with not enough students passing these new edTPAs will then be put on probation, and they can then be decertified.

It's another tactic to privatize, he said.

Mixing in unobtrusively with all the everyday heroes in the crowd was Superman – or rather, Eric Przykuta, president of the Lancaster TA, wearing a shirt with a big letter "S". He said his district has lost $24 million since the "temporary" Gap Elimination Adjustment was put in place in 2011.

Fewer dollars come in, but more must go out.

"That does not include unfunded mandates," he said, ticking off on his fingers how districts now have to pay for mandated tests (administered by a private, for-profit company), rolling out the Common Core, getting the tests corrected, implementing evaluation systems and preparing new curriculum.

In addition to the present financial injuries, schools cannot even plan for next year because Gov. Cuomo is holding the budget runs hostage to his proposals to disastrous "reforms." "His test-and-punish agenda is going to cause a severe narrowing of the curriculum as other subjects fall by the wayside," said Mike Corrigan, a Lancaster math teacher. "Teachers are going to be test prep factories." Corrigan's students are missing two years of math, he said, because they have to jump to ninth-grade curriculum in seventh grade in order to please the test.

NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino (left) speaks with activists representing Gouverneur: Jerrilyn Patton, Jennifer Prevost and Pam Mahay.

North Country schools are also losing loads of cash under GEA.

"We're not receiving the same resources. We need more equitable funding," said Pam Mahay of the Gouverneur TA. "

"Our students have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education. This is a civil rights issue at this point," said Jerrilyn Patton, a Gouverneur social studies teacher. Later, Troy teacher Seth Cohen pointed out that, in October 2010, Gov. Cuomo had said inequity in education was a civil rights issue – not public vs. private – but rich vs. poor.

That inequity plays out louder and louder every day in certain schools. The most recent program in Gouverneur to get tossed due to budget slamming: an extended day program. It's being cancelled.

Where will the students go after school?

The group of women shrugged.

"We're here to put additional pressure on our assemblymen and senators," said Patton. "Don't throw us under the bus."

First row: Maria Pacheo, Mohanasen; Kelly Fahrenkopf, Mohanasen; Kim McEvoy, Rondout Valley; Second row: Jeanette Stapley, Schroon Lake retiree; Sandie Carner-Shafran, WSWHE Boces; Third row: NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale.

School-Related Professional Sandie Carner-Shafran of Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employee Association carried a sign with photos of her grandchildren, who attend school in Corinth, Glens Falls, Greenwich and Schenectady. "My grandchildren need their schools to be fairly funded" it read.

A NYSUT board member, she was one of the leaders who helped transfer a planned forum in South Glens Falls last night to the rally in Albany. Many of the forum attendees hopped on buses for Albany. A rally action center was set up in the high school for those who could not make the trip to Albany, with laptops for them to send messages to lawmakers, to fill out postcards.

CUNY professional Iris DeLutro of the Professional Staff Congress drove three hours to the rally with her 87-year-old mother, Ada DeJesus.

"We are at a very significant point in our history," said DeLutro. While public higher education is an investment in community, students, she said, are saddled with paying almost 49 percent of operating costs of the university system. Their tuition has gone up, but it was supposed to be spent on support programs and faculty. Instead, it pays electric bills.

DeJesus, who lives in Queens, said she made the long trip because she wants to know about the education of New York City children from pre-K to college.

"For eight years, I worked 16 hours a day to educate my children," she said. Her jobs included dressmaking, making vinyl records in a factory, working as a therapy aid and dry cleaning. At night, she would bring material home and make 15-20 more dresses. Her children helped, she said.

Retiree Ronald Cadieux from the Schenectady Federation of Teachers hobbled around the stone steps of the Million Dollar Staircase in the Capitol with a protective walking boot. Just the day before, he'd had stitches and pins taken out of his foot. He was determined to join the rally, he said, because, "You can retire but your passion and dedication to teaching don't leave."

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