February Issue
January 23, 2015

Magee: Beating the billionaires' agenda

Author: Karen E. Magee, President
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee

If there was even an iota of doubt left, there is none now. We are in a war. The governor used his State of the State and budget presentation to attack the profession we love and every single one of us. His billionaires' agenda put political retribution ahead of what's good for students, parents, educators and our public schools and colleges.

nysut united cover cuomo 

State Budget 2015

The governor proposes drastic, punitive and unsupported changes in teacher evaluations and discipline, changes that would essentially gut tenure. He wants to double down on the misuse of high-stakes tests; proposes eviscerating collective bargaining over evaluations; offers a back-door voucher scheme that would provide tax credits to the wealthy patrons of charter schools; and wants state control over "failing schools," which would allow him to silence the voice of parents and eliminate collective bargaining agreements.

And, although inequality in school funding has reached record levels on his watch - and half of the state's school districts have less state aid today than in 2008 - Cuomo would provide only about half the school aid we need, while tying even that woefully inadequate amount to enactment of his corporate, hedge-funded "reform" agenda. His higher education proposals were equally dismal - inadequate funding for SUNY, CUNY and community colleges made worse by "performance-based" budgeting, which means, in short, he is foisting his corporate reform agenda on public higher education.

Cuomo's billionaires' agenda puts the very future of public education at stake. Frankly, it's a battle I am very comfortable having.

On one side are a handful of billionaire hedge fund managers - super-rich guys like Paul Tudor Jones and Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer. They contributed heavily to the governor's campaign from their Greenwich, Conn., mansions and Park Avenue penthouses, and believe they know how to "fix" public education - through privatization, union-busting and profiteering.

Of course, they ignore the inconvenient facts. The latest Education Week report ranks New York - despite devastating inequality in school funding and 1 million schoolchildren living in poverty - 9th among the states in the quality of its public schools. Cuomo and his billionaire friends want you to believe that public education is failing and teachers are failing, so they can fire teachers more easily while creating more unaccountable charter schools, which siphon money from regular public schools and have no reliable track record of success.

Of course, none of these New York City hedge fund managers know anything about how public schools work in Kingston, Spencerport, Syosset, Middletown or Albany, or the challenges students and teachers face. They are super rich, but they are clueless about public education.

On our side are students, parents and educators - people who know that public education works very well, serving as a ladder to college and the middle class for so many. Parents and students and teachers are the experts. We know what's needed - and it's not more standardized testing. It's not more unaccountable charter schools or a focus on a tiny number of struggling teachers. And, it's not more high-stakes tests for students or punitive systems that misuse flawed data to inaccurately rate teachers.

It's a distraction from what we really should be talking about.

First, we should be celebrating educational excellence in every corner of our state. The vast majority of our public schools are doing wonderful work. In places where students struggle, there is a direct correlation to poverty and societal problems that affect teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, we don't hear a plan from our governor or his self-proclaimed "reformers" to break the cycle of poverty and underfunding. There's no discussion about how to use research-proven programs to help children in poor communities. We should be talking about conditions that impact teaching and learning: class sizes, involvement of parents, ensuring quality early childhood education for more children - in short, turning the focus away from testing and back to teaching and learning. And, most importantly, we should be talking about inequity and inadequacy in school funding. Under the current formula, students who need the most often get the least - and frankly, that is immoral.

On New Year's Eve, I stood outside the gates of the executive mansion and called on the governor to hold public forums. I urged him to travel around the state and listen to the real concerns of teachers, parents and students. If he would do that, he'd hear that they love their public schools, value local control and trust their teachers to work alongside them, as partners, in the best interests of their communities.

Instead, the governor speaks to his billionaire contributors and continues to scapegoat teachers and blame public schools.

The battle is on. The governor can take his hedge fund friends and their big campaign donations. I'll take all of New York's students, parents and educators. I'm counting on you, because when we all fight together, as one united force, we are unstoppable and we will win.