May 2015 Issue
April 27, 2015

Union activists turn up the heat on Albany

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
capitol briefing
Caption: ABOVE: Thousands gather in the well of the Legislative Office Building to protest Cuomo's toxic anti-public education agenda and to protect public schools. LEFT: NYSUT officers, from top, President Karen E. Magee; Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta; Vice President Catalina Fortino; Vice President Paul Pecorale and Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner peppered the state, adding their voices to support educators, parents and students at dozens of local rallies, parades and forums. Photos by El-Wise Noisette.

capitol briefingHeeding the call from NYSUT members, legislators provided a big boost in school aid, four times as much as Gov. Cuomo initially proposed. The aid also signals a major commitment to mitigate the damaging effects of the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The school aid increase was among the positive developments in a budget otherwise poisoned by the governor's anti-public education agenda.

The union's pushback against Cuomo's wrong-headed education policies hasn't skipped a beat; it's only getting harder and louder. NYSUT launched in late April a major statewide TV and Internet campaign criticizing the governor and his hedge fund billionaire backers for trying to "rewrite history" and glossing over the effects on schools and campuses in the policy-laden fiscal plan.

The campaign puts lawmakers and policymakers on notice. NYSUT will not stand down in its staunch opposition to the budget's most toxic components:

  • the overhaul of Annual Professional Performance Review to further overemphasize testing and punish teachers;
  • erosion of local control through "receivership" for schools in struggling communities;
  • continued threats on tenure, privatizing classrooms, diverting money from schools with tax breaks for the wealthy and more. The union's million-dollar ad campaign coordinates with an aggressive campaign launched by the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, NYSUT's largest affiliate.

The multi-media effort also resonates in a hard-hitting column by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. In it, she says a U.S. Senate attempt to overhaul No Child Left Behind shows honest progress in Washington, D.C., while the governor and his wealthy pals in New York state are looking backward.

The Senate's Every Child Achieves Act would eliminate Annual Yearly Performance and mandatory sanctions, such as school closings, and would not require states to maintain a teacher evaluation system. The proposal also maintains funding equity.

"We can't let up on the pressure," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "Our activism is clearly working."

The swell of grassroots activism in support of public education that sprung up across the state weeks ago shows no sign of wilting. NYSUT members are using the union's Member Action Center to send thousands of emails urging lawmakers to support a parent opt-out bill and to push the Regents to listen to educators, parents and students as they carve out teacher evaluation regulations.

Hundreds turned out in late April at a rally hosted by the Yonkers Federation of Teachers to "Call Out Cuomo" and demand he "give back" the $28 million shortfall in the district's budget.

Media buzzed when Saranac Lake teacher Maria DeAngelo, buoyed by supporters along the way, walked more than 150 miles to Albany to deliver her students' artwork and a message to the governor: Walk in our shoes! Great Neck music teachers produced parodies calling out the governor, and a teacher publicly invited Cuomo to visit his school in Cuba... New York.

"It's the collective roar of educators and other citizens rising up, speaking out and refusing to accept Gov. Cuomo's attack on public schools and universities without a fight," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee.

As legislative leaders engaged in traditional back-room negotiations prior to the state budget deadline, thousands of NYSUT members, parents, administrators, students and even lawmakers joined in at least 60 thoughtful and inspiring forums and rallies statewide to champion public education.

"We called out the governor and we educated the lawmakers, and we took what was a slap in the face and turned it into a positive," said Pallotta. "This adopted budget provides significantly more than the governor's proposal."

On the first day back in session after the April break, the Assembly Education Committee approved a bill sponsored by Education Chair Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, that supports the rights of parents to opt their children out of the state tests. The state Senate introduced its own version, sponsored by Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown, the next day.

After lawmakers handed the new evaluation system to the Board of Regents and State Education Department to implement, NYSUT members blitzed the Regents with thousands of emails calling for public hearings on the APPR regulations. In a step forward, Chancellor Merryl Tisch then agreed to hold a hearing in Albany with stakeholder groups and representatives in early May.

NYSUT continues to exert pressure on lawmakers to do what's right for students and educators during the remaining seven weeks of the legislative session. Many crucial policy issues are yet to be debated - the tax cap, the DREAM Act, the Education Investment Tax Credit, mayoral control and minimum wage. Charter school advocates are renewing their call to lift the charter cap.

"We're a long way from being done," Pallotta said. "NYSUT members are energized for the fight."