July/August 2013 Issue
June 22, 2013

One Voice United: 'A journey to move public education in the right direction'

Author: NYSUT United Staff
Source: NYSUT United
rally overview

The spirit of the "One Voice United" rally is reaching across generations and across hundreds of miles, as parents, educators, students and community members - more than 15,000 strong - are spreading the message: We will keep fighting for public education.

"This rally got people energized," said John Canty, president of the Ramapo Central Teachers Association, who attended the NYSUT-sponsored rally on the Empire State Plaza in Albany with a busload of members from his local.

Now, Canty said, that energy must translate into effort, and the work must continue at home to get the word out that protecting public schools and colleges is a community-wide effort.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said people needed "a New York state moment where we come together to speak with one voice about the future of public education - celebrating educators, not demonizing them; supporting quality in higher education, not gimmicks and sideshows and pathways that lead to no place."

The rally, he said, was just one step in "a journey to move public education in the right direction."

Parents say the June 8 rally, which was supported by almost two dozen organizations, provided them with an overwhelming sense of unity and hope for their children's future.

Brenda Crump, a member of the Mount Vernon Board of Education, said the rally "inspired me to get ready for the next rally."

Four of her children have graduated from Mount Vernon schools and three are still in the Mount Vernon system. She plans to tell other parents and her fellow board members that a strong coalition is standing firmly in support of quality public education.

"The rally is inspiring me to continue this fight, because supporting our schools is not a one-day deal," Crump said.

Bus after bus after bus after bus clogged highways and city streets, at one time causing 45-minute traffic jams, as thousands with signs, banners and children in tow poured into the plaza to make their voices heard. Several politicians came on buses or on their own.

News reports called it the largest rally in the capital in years and, for many, it was an entirely emotional one.

"There are moments when you know that you are part of something huge and something explosively amazing. Today is that day," said Lori Griffin, high school English teacher and member of the Copenhagen TA.

Most came to the rally because they are frustrated by zealous over-testing of students and disheartened by the chronic underfunding of schools and campuses; still others came because they want more educational opportunities and safer places to teach and learn.

"I think if we stay together we can effect change on issues that are very important to us," said Frank DeCelie, a 25-year teaching veteran and member of the Herricks TA on Long Island. High-stakes testing and policies like the property tax cap, he said, "are destroying education."

Elma Sprague, a teaching assistan in Guilderland and member of NYSUT's SRP Advisory Committee, noted the illogic to spending more on testing when programs are cut. "I'm concerned, and I want my voice to be heard," she said.

Andy Sako, president of Faculty Federation of Erie Community College and a NYSUT Board member, was impressed by the huge turnout.

"We're all one; we're all standing together - administrators, parents and the higher education community," Sako said. "We're here to support our desire to eliminate this needless overuse of testing and to speak out against the privatization of higher education."

Aggie Pelletieri, an art teacher and president of the Tupper Lake United Teachers, met up at the rally with other art teachers, who came from a nearby meeting of the New York State Art Teachers Association.

"I needed some positive energy about the school crisis issue," said Pelletieri, who teaches art to 470 K-6 students. Their work was displayed in the North Country Regional Elementary Art Show in Lake Placid 45 miles away, but the students didn't get to see it. Budget cuts have canceled all field trips.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Joyce Powell of the National Education Association re-emphasized the need to halt the use of standardized tests in high-stakes decisions for students and teachers until the new Common Core Learning Standards are properly implemented.

"That's why we are calling for a moratorium," Weingarten said. "We have an obligation to give all our kids the skills they need for tomorrow."

Five New York state teachers of the year - Katie Ferguson (2012), Jeff Peneston (2011), Deb Calvino (2010), Richard Ognibene, Jr. (2008) and Marguerite Izzo (2007) represented the voice of practitioners.

"We speak with one voice," said Ognibene, their chosen spokesman. "We tell Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King that real reform will not come from top-down policies and excessive high-stakes testing. Rather, real reform must come from the bottom up, based on trust and collaboration with the practitioners in the field. We speak," he says, "because we are more than teachers of record, we are teachers of the whole child."

James Allen, a retired middle school science teacher from the Valley Central School District in Orange County, attended the rally with a former student, Joseph Byrne, who is now at Valley Central High School. "I want to encourage more people to get involved and stay involved, even after they retire," Allen said.

All told, more than 20 speakers - union leaders, parents, students, educators, school administrators and community activists - took to the stage over the span of three hours to extol the value of a New York public education and admonish those who wish to dismantle it.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew: "Are we fed up with those telling us what we should do everyday but have never done it themselves? We are the people who decided to make a difference in children's lives."

John Nichols, a national journalist, author and blogger: "If we are to be a democracy … the republic that was intended by our forefathers … then we must have a strong public education system."

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento: "We are stronger together, and when we raise our voices together we win, our children win and the schools win!"

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters: "We come together to say: Enough of this arrogant dismissal of the rights of parents, children and teachers; enough of the damage being wreaked on our schools."

Tonawanda school principal John McKenna: "The current reform agenda that is causing so much harm can't last ... Teachers are becoming micro-managed, demoralized; they feel set up for failure. We can't do that to the art of teaching."

Student activist Nikhil Goyal: Students "have been walking out of school, protesting and rallying against high-stakes testing, budget cuts and the assault on public education."

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions: "The movement is picking up steam. It's taking us to a place of promise where justice will exist for all!"

Amparo Sandler of Central Islip, a mother and grandmother and a member of the Long Island Progressive Coalition: "We have to stress to our school districts how important early education is. Why is it that our educational system is broken? This is not a damn game show."

Between speeches came the music. The Cohoes and Valley Central marching bands and WATTS on TAP, comprised of members of the Newark Valley TA, wowed the crowd. Bryan Thomas, a member of NYSUT communications staff, sang "The Revolution Starts Now." Teacher Jeremy Dudley, a member of the Albany Public Schools TA, performed his hip hop song, "Stop This Madness."

And award-winning folk musician Tom Chapin, a passionate advocate for keeping creativity in education, performed "Not on the Test," his satirical song on the obsession with standardized tests.

But it was his newest song, the one he composed with his accompaniest Michael Mark just for the rally -"One Voice United" - that drew a hush, reminding the crowd of what they had done that day.

"Hand in hand," the chorus goes, "we stand united in one voice."

"'One Voice' brought tears to my eyes," an Albany parent wrote later on her blog, The Angel Forever. "I watched as two of my sons' teachers linked arms to sway and sing together. I listened to my boys utter the words in unison with the giant crowd."