Is this the year when common sense returns to Albany and New York state's public education system? NYSUT activists are champing at the bit to hit the streets and the halls of the state Capitol in 2016 to help achieve just that.
The state Senate and Assembly's new leaders — Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-East Northport, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx — will have bolstered their positions when Gov. Andrew Cuomo opens the legislative session with his combined State of the State and executive budget address Jan. 13.
Leadership in the State Education Department also has changed, with Commissioner MaryEllen Elia taking over for John King Jr. A new dynamic among the Board of Regents is already shaping up with the addition of several new activist members and the imminent departure of Chancellor Merryl Tisch this spring.
The governor's office even appears to be seeing the light. The recent recommendations from the governor's own task force will begin to reverse some of the most destructive pillars of his education program.
"For months, NYSUT members marched and called out the hypocrisy of profit-driven policy in education," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "Parents have spoken, and they turned their opt-out movement into a referendum on so-called reforms that unfairly burden children and pointlessly punish educators. We can't stop now. If we hit the ground running in January, we can carry the day by June."
In 2015, NYSUT members gained a sense of what can be accomplished when we work together, said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee.
"Our voice has been heard, but we have only begun," she said. "Across our broad membership, from bus drivers and secretaries to teachers and their aides and assistants, to higher ed faculty, health care professionals, and municipal and non-profit agency workers, we all need to lean forward and continue to march up this hill together."
NYSUT's legislative agenda is as broad as its membership. Here are some of the union's 2016 priorities:
APPR (teacher evaluations)
Shortly after President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act to bring an end to the destructive No Child Left Behind era, the governor's Common Core Task Force issued its recommendations for New York state. The recommendations signal a commitment to ending the "test-and-punish" era, but much needs to be done.
The extent to which New York must fix its Annual Professional Performance Review system legislatively is still being debated. NYSUT continues to fight for a reduction in testing and to ensure a fair evaluation system.
This could be the year when everyone agrees the state's tax cap experiment has failed. With the inflation-based tax cap projected to be 0 percent, the union wants modifications that would allow at least a 2 percent cap across the board, remove the undemocratic supermajority requirement for exceeding the cap and provide more exemptions for costs that are out of a district's control.
Struggling schools have found the state's poorly devised receivership system to be undemocratic, unfair and unworkable. Amending the law to preserve local control and collective bargaining, and to provide dedicated funding, would help these schools better serve students and communities. Students, parents and educators must also be supported with sufficient services, programs and funds.
With NYSUT leading the opposition, last year's proposed voucher bill — deceptively named the Education Investment Tax Credit — failed to gain traction. However, the parochial and private school lobby, backed by even more private money, intends to bring it forward again. The bill essentially provides millionaires with cash refunds on the taxes they owe the state, and diverts much-needed tax revenue away from state coffers.
NYSUT fully embraces the Regents' proposed education funding increase of $2.4 billion, which is required to meet educational needs and support priorities.
The state's continued failure to meet its education funding obligation must be reversed. NYSUT continues to support a restart of the foundation aid formula to ensure all students, especially in high-need districts, receive the support they need to succeed. The state must also end the Gap Elimination Adjustment, after the fiscal crisis that created it has long passed.
Higher ed operating costs
The five-year plan in the NYSUNY 2020 agreement expires this year. It provided annual tuition increases and a bare bones maintenance of effort (MOE) provision to ensure the state pays the fixed costs to operate campuses and "keep the lights on."
NYSUT is fighting for stronger MOE legislation to ensure the state pays its obligation. The union also is seeking an increase in base aid to community colleges of $250 per student.
The union vigorously opposes any proposed performance-based funding scheme that would create winners and losers in different regions.
SUNY hospital funding
NYSUT is steadfast in the annual battle to give State University of New York's three hospitals — in Syracuse, Brooklyn, and Stony Brook — the resources they deserve to provide first-rate, high-quality health care to patients in their traditionally underserved communities, and to provide students with high-quality medical education.
One of the union's top priorities is long-sought legislation to set safe staffing ratios in hospitals. These codified ratios protect the safety of staff and are crucial so all patients receive the best care in the safest environment possible. The union's health care activists also are pushing the state to continue the Medicaid waiver program, which awards funding through the state's Performing Provider System (PPS) network and helps to increase access to primary care for the uninsured.