February Issue
February 03, 2014

Activists turn up heat on Regents

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Regent James Jackson meets with NYSUT Board member Kathy Taylor and other members of ED 13 to discuss frustrations over the Common Core implementation. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Caption: Regent James Jackson meets with NYSUT Board member Kathy Taylor and other members of ED 13 to discuss frustrations over the Common Core implementation. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The Board of Regents is getting lobbied like never before. Using online action letters, face-to-face meetings and invites to visit local schools, union activists continue to reach out to their Board of Regents members in an unprecedented way to let them know how their policy decisions impact local students and teachers.

In the Southern Tier, NYSUT Board member Dona Murray and seven other educators had breakfast at a local diner with Regent James Tallon, a former state Assembly majority leader who is serving on the Regents task force on Common Core implementation.

"He was under the mistaken impression that we are seeking a moratorium just because test scores are connected to teacher evaluations," Murray said. "We stressed that our concern is for the students and the problems teachers are having implementing Common Core without the right materials and enough time." Tallon will be a guest speaker at a regional NYSUT leadership meeting in the Binghamton area in March, Murray said.

Similarly, lower Hudson Valley educators and parents met with Regent Harry Phillips to explain how Common Core standardized testing was specifically hurting students with disabilities and English language learners. By the end of the meeting, activists said Phillips voiced his support, saying "we botched this."

In the Mohawk Valley, Regent Jim Dawson visited the Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville district in January after union leader Phoebe Sitterly asked for a meeting. Dawson instead offered to visit the district — he had not been to the area in several years, since the school districts merged.

"It's good for me to have an opportunity to talk with superintendents, teachers and students ... and have some background when making policy," Dawson told the Herkimer Telegram.

Sitterly, a high school social studies teacher, explained how teachers are being held accountable for issues they can't control, such as student attendance and motivation. She gave this example: If a dentist gives a patient instruction on how to care for his or her teeth, but then the patient doesn't follow through with proper care, the dentist is not held responsible.

In January, mid-Hudson activists invited pro-education state lawmakers to attend their meeting with Regent James Jackson in Albany. NYSUT Board member Kathy Taylor, a longtime Ulster BOCES union leader, cited mounting frustrations with the Common Core rollout and testing and urged him to support a moratorium on high-stakes consequences linked to testing.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, State Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, and State Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck, asked a lot of pointed questions at the meeting. The legislators seemed to signal that if the Regents do not make serious changes, legislative action will be needed, Taylor said.

Lawmakers also made it clear that Regents nominations for re-election might not sail through as usual. The 17 Regents board members are elected to five-year terms by a joint session of the Legislature in March. Thirteen members represent judicial districts throughout the state, while four serve at large.

"NYSUT members need to take an active role in getting to know their Regent — just as they would monitor the actions of their local school board members," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.

She noted that more than 12,000 activists signed an online action letter urging the Regents to push for more state funding and a moratorium on consequences tied to Common Core testing.

"Our leaders are actively engaged in holding the Regents accountable for their decisions," Neira said.