June 2015 Issue
May 21, 2015

Magee: Time to reflect, but not to rest

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

A tumultuous legislative session and an eventful school year are winding down.

It is an appropriate time to reflect, take stock and look to the future — perhaps to better days ahead when our public institutions are respected and fully funded; teachers are again free to teach creatively; evaluations are fair and meaningful; and we have a governor who actually supports public education.

As we enter June, this year has sparked unparalleled activism by our members in every constituency group, in every corner of the state. NYSUT members, working effectively with parents and coalitions, are fighting passionately for what all kids need, whether it is an increased investment in our SUNY and CUNY systems and community colleges; public hospitals; or the nearly 700 school districts across the state. At dozens of educational forums, rallies and campus meetings, we made it clear: Educators are, indeed, the experts.

We've had some victories and, yes, we experienced some setbacks.

I am proud that our fight resonated with the public. New Yorkers clearly understood our message: Public education deserves fair funding; students are more than a test score; and New York needs to go back to what's most important — and that's teaching and learning, not an over-reliance on state standardized tests. And, if there is any doubt that the public continues to love and support its public schools and teachers, one need only look at the results of the May 19 school budget vote and its 99 percent passage rate.

We convinced state lawmakers to support a $1.3 billion school funding increase, which is enabling districts to begin the slow process of restoring teachers, staff and programs. We staved off attempts in the state budget to privatize SUNY Downstate teaching hospital. And, — at least for now — we staved off a budget proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and the back-door voucher scheme.

Yes, despite a bitter fight, the governor imposed a convoluted, unworkable teacher evaluation system that does nothing to help parents, students or educators. He pushed through a "gotcha" system that attacks tenure and does exactly what his billionaire supporters want: "test and punish."

But, as Mother Teresa once said, "Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We only have today. Let us begin."

As NYSUT United goes to press, the Regents are pushing back hard at recommendations developed by the State Education Department that perpetuate the state's onerous testing climate and do not go far enough toward mitigating the damage from the governor's evaluation plan. Final regulations are expected in mid-June. We will not rest until they are as good as they can be.

On a parallel track, the Assembly voted 135-1 for a strong bill that takes significant steps toward addressing some, but not all, of the issues we have raised. The Assembly bill, and a similar one introduced by Senate Democrats, would, among other steps, delay implementation of the governor's APPR plan by a full year to September 2016 and decouple the new evaluation plans from districts' scheduled state aid increases. We are talking to Senate Republicans about moving a bill forward, before the session concludes, that addresses the concerns of students, parents and educators.

Meanwhile, NYSUT is pushing back hard against any lifting of the charter cap and vigorously opposing the governor's so-called "Parental Choice in Education Act," a thinly disguised voucher bill that awards huge tax credits to his wealthy campaign contributors.

At a time when our public institutions remain chronically under-funded, state tax dollars — directly or indirectly — should not be going to private schools, especially since charters, unlike public schools, can and do discriminate by picking and choosing which students they accept. While NYSUT supports every parent's right to choose a private or religious school education for their child, taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize that personal choice.

I can think of much better uses for the $150 million in tax credits proposed for just the first year of the governor's tax credit scheme. New York can use that money to re-hire some of the dedicated teachers' aides and assistants who were laid off because of the governor's budget cuts, or to put a school nurse in every building.

The state could increase funding to residential schools for students with special needs; fund more libraries and librarians; and better support public higher education, health care and school districts that serve our most vulnerable student populations.

Shamefully, our governor has other ideas. But, tomorrow is yet to come. We have today — and we will continue to use today and every day to move our agenda forward.