April 2015 Issue
March 20, 2015

Union members share real-life stories, experiences with lawmakers to help shape legislation

Author: By Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
Students from Questar III BOCES EL-WISE NOISETTE New Visions program speak with NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino before their meetings with lawmakers.
Caption: Students from Questar III BOCES New Visions program speak with NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino before their meetings with lawmakers. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Perhaps it's appropriate that one of the more poignant comments made during Committee of 100 meetings in March came from someone who is not yet a teacher, but desperately wants to be.

Matthew B. Pinchinat, 21, a Siena College education major and student-teacher, with mentor Everett Finney of the Schodack Central FA at his side, explained to state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Saratoga, how over-reliance on standardized tests is changing the best parts of the public education system.

"Learning is not something that you can quantify and apply across all students," Pinchinat said. His generation is turning away from teaching as a career option, not because it is becoming harder ... but because the goals of the profession are shifting. Young people see it as a career in which you have to justify your existence every year, increasingly through the results of standardized testing.

"That's just creating a generation of cynics," he said. "I don't want to be a cynic … All of our effort should not be spent just to keep a job; our effort should be used to educate the next generation."

This year's legislative session is marked by unprecedented levels of grassroots activism by NYSUT members and supporters from all over the state. Amid marches, forums, rallies and parades, union advocates continue their annual efforts in Albany and in home districts, meeting with lawmakers and telling their stories to convince them to fully fund public pre-K-16 education, preserve local control and give Cuomo's agenda a resounding thumbs down.

During NYSUT's annual Committee of 100, volunteer lobbyists-for-a-day — some 600 in all — tramped the halls and stairways of the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building in search of more teaching and learning, less testing and punishing, and fair and equitable funding for all schools in every ZIP code.

On other March lobby days, 400 advocates from NYSUT's higher education affiliates, 200 from BOCES district local unions and hundreds more from the United Federation of Teachers — the statewide union's largest local — swarmed the Capitol to press their case.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, described this year's advocacy as "a struggle against austerity … a battle against racism and a battle against the deprivation of the middle class."

The governor's original budget plan for 2015-16 does not even contain a school aid proposal. It includes authority to fund an increase of up to $1.1 billion, but it does not include school aid formulas to allocate the funds.

NYSUT and the Alliance for Quality Education are advocating for a $2.2 billion increase in education funding. That would help stamp out the Gap Elimination Adjustment and make a meaningful down payment toward restoring the $4.9 billion in foundation aid that is owed to public schools.

The message appears to be getting through, as the Assembly and state Senate passed one-house budget resolutions with pre-K-12 education aid increases of $1.8 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. April 1 is the deadline if the governor wants to keep his streak of on-time budgets alive.

Discussions with lawmakers are going far beyond the budget, however.

"All of this mess the governor created is taking away from what we're doing as parents and what we're doing as teachers," said Jeannine Smith of Middle Country Teachers Association in a meeting with state Sen. Ken LaValle, R-Suffolk. "It's a big mess, and he created it all."

Smith and others said the governor's proposed "reform" of the evaluation system, which he tied to his budget proposal, makes no sense. APPR already is "such a flawed system," said Larrilee Jemiola of the Southampton TA. The governor's plan to increase the weight of standardized testing in evaluations and to use outside observers "is only making it worse." The tests are not a valid measure, she said, and the governor seems to be the only one who doesn't recognize that.

Seth Cohen, president of the Troy TA, told new Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, about the crippling loss of local control caused by the arbitrary and undemocratic tax cap. Troy will never have the needed support to exceed the cap.

"So instead," he said, "as costs go up, every year they ask, what can we get rid of to stay under the cap? This year we have only one business teacher. A few years ago, we had five."

Senate Education Chair John Flanagan, R-East Northport, told a conference room full of Suffolk County folks that he doesn't think the tax cap will be repealed. However, he said, "If we properly fund schools, the tax cap becomes less of an issue."

During Committee of 100 and on Higher Ed lobby days, activists advocated for $344.5 million in increased base funding for SUNY, CUNY and their community colleges. In that amount is an increase of $250 per full-time equivalent student in aid to community colleges.

"At some point, the governor must wake up and realize the damage he is doing to this state," said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions at SUNY.