The following opinion piece by NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta appeared in the September 18, 2017, edition of On Board, the official publication of the New York State Association of School Board Officials. Learn more about the Constitutional Convention at www.nysut.org/concon.
A Constitutional Convention poses a serious threat to public education
Don't be fooled.
A Constitutional Convention would have nothing to do with improving New York State government and returning it to "the people." Instead, what a convention would really be about is ensuring government remains in control of political insiders and serves the interests of deep-pocketed donors.
History has shown that convention delegates mostly would be made up of politicians and their staff. A convention would be more than a publicly funded boondoggle, too - expected, by some estimates, to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Just as troubling, a Constitutional Convention could spell complete disaster for New York State's public education system.
From Long Island to Plattsburgh, Buffalo to Albany, our public schools are already faced with significant challenges. Chronic underfunding continues to plague our most-needy schools. Districts statewide remain hamstrung by the unrelenting constraints of a tax cap that have diminished local control. And we now have a secretary of education in Washington who supports voucher schemes, privatization and the unregulated proliferation of charter schools nationwide.
By opening the state Constitution to a sweeping overhaul, the progress our schools have made could be permanently derailed. In fact, should voters in November approve a Constitutional Convention- which would put at risk everything from retirement security to environmental regulations that ensure clean water and air -the very protections that guarantee children access to a free, quality public education and a shot at a successful life could be stripped away altogether.
Why on Earth would we take such a risk?
When talk turns to the possibility of a Constitutional Convention, much of the focus is placed on public pensions. And, yes, a convention would most certainly result in reduced pension benefits for public-sector retirees, including classroom teachers, school administrators and other education professionals. At a time when New York State is facing a teacher shortage, the promise of a dignified retirement is an important recruiting tool for a profession where salaries have not kept pace with the private sector.
The retirement security of public servants who have dedicated their lives to helping children is a worthy issue to highlight when it comes to speaking out against a Constitutional Convention. But, when it comes to public education, it is far from the only issue.
The last time a Constitutional Convention was held in New York, there was a proposal to repeal the Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the use of state money to fund religious schools. Had voters not rejected this attempt, public education in our state would look very different today, and not for the better.
In a political climate where school voucher schemes are a constant threat, wealthy donors could use their influence to secure convention delegates who would push an agenda that would devastate public schools - leading to the likely loss of critically needed funding, local control and transparency.
New York State already owes its schools roughly $3.5 billion under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling. Wasting hundreds of millions of dollars - or more - on a bash for political insiders when, instead, it could be used to educate our children, is simply unconscionable.
The fact is, legislative changes can be imposed through the existing amendment process. And, what's more, unlike a Constitutional Convention, the amendment process doesn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It's completely free.
We have a responsibility to protect the right to a quality education for all students, no matter their zip code or socio- economic status.
We have a duty to ensure that teachers and education professionals working in our schools have access to the resources necessary so they can deliver to students the best education possible.
We have an obligation to the communities we serve. By placing our bets on a Constitutional Convention, we are gambling with the future of our children. It is not worth the risk.
It is incumbent upon all of us who work to protect public education in New York State to vote "No" in November.
Andrew Pallotta is president of New York State United Teachers, a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care.