The 'Force' was with the state and nation’s public schools Thursday, as teachers, parents and concerned community members from the North Country to Long Island and from Buffalo to Rotterdam gathered en masse to protect public education.
In Plattsburgh, the armament of choice was “lightsabers,” which unionists and advocates waved as they rallied in front of the city’s MacDonough Monument to defend students, academic programs and keep higher education affordable.
"We're here fighting for what's right and good," said Saranac Lake Teachers Association Co-President Don Carlisto, as he stood with fellow educators and allies holding their Star Wars-inspired “weapon” to signify their fight for public schools. "We're redoubling our efforts to stand up for public education."
The gathering in Plattsburgh — just one day before Inauguration Day — was one of hundreds Thursday across the country as part of a National Day of Action organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools — a pro-public education group supported by NYSUT and its national affiliates, the American Education Association and the National Education Association.
FOLLOW ALONG AND SHARE YOUR SHIELD
Front and center throughout the day was widespread opposition to the decision by President-elect Trump to select billionaire Betsy DeVos as the nation’s secretary of education. DeVos — who has no credible professional education background — has a long history of waging war on public schools, politicizing education and using her family’s vast fortune in Michigan to push for-profit charter schools and the implementation of voucher schemes.
In the Empire State alone, nearly 200 NYSUT locals representing thousands of New York educators and their allies banded together in their respective communities to say “NO!” to privatization, voucher schemes, intolerance, bullying, and charter school management operating without transparency or oversight.
"We always knew schools were a safe place for our kids, but the world has changed,” said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee as she spoke to members of the Mohonasen Teachers Association in Schenectady County, who mobilized locally for the Day of Action. “We all need to be together as one voice to beat back attempts to privatize, to segregate."
The Mohonasen middle school lobby was filled with red t-shirts, red hoodies, red blouses — and one pair of brave and shiny red shoes with bows, worn by Magee in solidarity with the campaign to wear red at Thursday’s events.
Magee thanked the MTA members for their support in the campaign to keep students safe from deportation and racism, and to stop the siphoning of money from public schools to private charter schools.
As for the nomination of DeVos — whose appointment depends in part on 20 senators who have accepted large donations from the wealthy, national charter school advocate — Magee said, "she's not about accountability, she's about profit.”
Mohonasen teacher Brenda Stahl posted a shield outside her classroom door promising to shield students against "the extortion of public schools."
"I'm a little worried for the kids and for the public schools," she said. "It's kind of scary. It's profit-oriented."
Here’s a glimpse at just some of the events that took place across the state Thursday, starting early in the morning into the evening:
- On Long Island, where NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta joined members in the Day of Action, hundreds of Bay Shore Classroom Teachers Association members and allies rallied to “defend public education” and “defy DeVos.” Port Washington Teachers Association members, meanwhile, took part in a social media campaign aimed at protecting public schools, and members of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association mobilized, holding “shields” bearing messages opposing the overuse of standardized tests, voucher schemes and the appointment of DeVos. Mike Krieger, social studies teacher and president of the Bay Shore Classroom Teachers Association, said Thursday’s rally — as well as other efforts to oppose DeVos’s appointment — represent “the fight for the soul of American public education. “Together,” said Krieger, “we must stand up and say: ‘Educational justice is social justice for educators, working families, the labor movement, women and of course, our children.’” Pallotta agreed, saying "We will fight back to win for public ed."
- In Corning, more than 150 Corning Teachers Association members, students, parents and community members walked from the Corning Painted Post High School to Centerway Square — a downtown Corning gathering spot — where they heard from NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale and others “Betsy DeVos’ nomination means that we’ve got our work cut out for us, when it comes to education policy,” said Pecorale. “In Michigan, a market system for education has proven to be unsuccessful and it would prove itself equally unsuccessful nationally. We can’t let that happen. It’s important that we stand in solidarity, to defend public education against those who would like to see our many years of progress destroyed.” Later Thursday evening, Southern Tier Advocates for Public Education — a NYSUT-supported group of educators, parents, students and community members — were to rally outside the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, highlighting a range of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, school funding and the importance of fighting back against DeVos’ regressive policies. Speakers were to include Pecorale; Jim Carr, retiree president for the Public Employees Federation; and Peggy Clarkson, first vice president of the Steuben-Livingston Central Labor Council.
- In New York City, the Professional Staff Congress — which represents more than 27,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York and the CUNY Research Foundation — joined with members of the Long Island University faculty and staff unions in lower Manhattan where they gathered on a bridge connecting a public high school in Stuyvesant and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. There, they rallied in defense of public K-12 and higher education, warning of the potential threats posed by the incoming Trump administration and the possible appointment of DeVos.
- NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner joined members, parents and community activists in Cobleskill as part of the Foothill Area Coalition of Teachers Day of Action event. Besides featuring a number of speakers, the event also included the distribution of free books. "I would like New York to become the blue wall," said Messner, urging the crowd in Cobleskill to "be prepared to answer the call, like we did to ‘Call out Cuomo,’ and take to the streets" in the fight to protect public education.
- In Massena, students, teachers, and parents feasted on pasta and sang songs in celebration of the community’s public schools. Massena Federation of Teachers President Erin Covell said the local decided to take a positive approach to the Day of Action to showcase public education and highlight “how awesome we are." Students from the upcoming Massena musical "Bye Bye Birdie" sang and performed, robotics students showed off their prowess, and student art was on display. Student council members from all schools served the food and helped clean up, working together for the first time. The dinner was funded by a grant received from The People Project Solidarity grant, funded by NYSUT. The evening also included open access to "Raider's Closet," a project started by Covell, a school counselor. Families were given bags and welcomed to take donated clothes — many still with tags — non-perishable food and personal hygiene products.
- Teamwork and collaboration ruled the ‘Day of Action’ in the Mid-Hudson region. In Westchester County, members of the Irvington Faculty Association along with members of the district's CSEA clerical unit held flagpole meet-ups and shield walk-ins at four schools in the Irvington Free School District. Irvington FA President Amy Falk said the event was adapted from the “Flagpole Fridays,” which the local began several weeks ago as a way to show solidarity and support to one another. “We meet at a designated, highly visible, spot before the start of school and walk in together to start our day.” Meanwhile, more than 250 members of the Harrison Association of Teachers participated in “greeting events” at the district’s four elementary schools, and middle and high school locations. “We wanted to thank the community for supporting our schools and convey the importance of public education,” said HAT President Chris Tyler. Joining in were some district administrators.
- Further north, in Sullivan County, the Tri-Valley Teachers’ Association and the Tri-Valley Essential Support Staff Association teamed up with school administration to distribute 500 books to pre-K-to-12 students at Tri-Valley. Inside each book was a specially created bookmark featuring a message about the importance of public education, and TVTA, TESSA and First Book’s sponsorship of the Day of Action event. Tri-Valley TA President April Kackos said she hoped the event marked the beginning of the locals’ affiliation with First Book.
- In Buffalo’s Cleveland Hill, teachers stood in solidarity with their Muslim students in a show of opposition to hate and intolerance. "Cleveland Hill teachers are donning hijabs to help shield our students from Islamophobia," tweeted Serena Kotch, president of the Cleveland Hill Education Association and a member of NYSUT's Civil and Human Rights Committee. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Western New York, members of the Cuba-Rushford Teachers Association donned blue attire in a show of solidarity for their students, schools and professions.
- And in Central New York, NYSUT members, students, parents and lawmakers used the day as a springboard to launch ongoing conversations and activism in the region. Phil Cleary, a political action coordinator and local leader from the North Syracuse Education Association, and Shella Chizzonite, a PAC member and local leader from the East Syracuse Minoa United Teachers, unveiled a compilation video of members and area lawmakers sharing what they love about their public schools. The video was completed with support from NYSUT staffer Ian Phillips. “We’re gathering these stories up and using them as an opportunity to start conversations” about important matters at the state and federal levels, Cleary said.
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