Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Just Another Day in Paradise


On March 19th a coalition of teachers, parents, and education activists went to Albany to talk to a few Senators who sit on the New York State education committee.   Appointments were secured with Senators Valesky, Latimer, and Flanagan.  We met with the education staff for Senators Peralta, Lavalle, and Assemblywoman Nolan.  Sadly, Speaker Heastie and Senator Skelos’ staff had to cancel appointments with us.  Present was Marla Kilfoyle,  BATs General Manager/NYSAPE, Terry Kalb, NY BATs, Bianca Tanis, NYSAPE, Lisa Litvin, Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA co-president , Suzanne Coyle, parent from the Clarkstown Central School District , and Mike Lillis, President of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers.   Here is a synopsis of our day which began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 2:30, with a few of us sitting in on a hearing that the education committee held. 

We met at 8:00 a.m. at Prime Cafeteria in the Legislative Office Building.  We decided that each of us would choose a specific topic of concern.  Marla would moderate and begin each meeting asking the Senators to fight to decouple discussions of education from the budget.  We handed each office a copy of the NYSAPE letter to Governor Cuomo (read here:  http://www.nysape.org/nysape-response-letter-to-governor-on-public-education.html) and the copy of the Quinnipiac Poll which showed that Gov. Cuomo's numbers in the polls were down due to his attack on public education (Read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/18/andrew-cuomo-approval-poll_n_6896012.html)   All the offices agreed to take these handouts with the exception of Senator Lavelle’s aide. 

What each of us shared
Mike Lillis summarized  the study NYSED hired the College Board to perform in 2013 that established  cut points to a 1630 on the SAT. (Read here: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/reports/summary38externalbenchmarkstudies.pdf) Mike explained to all the Senators that the SAT percentiles show our college and career benchmark is tied to doing better than 66% of college bound students nationally. (read here: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/SAT-Percentile-Ranks-Composite-CR-M-W-2013.pdf).  Mike expanded on the fact in all the meetings that the College Board conducted its own study, in 2013, that puts college and career readiness at a score of 1550.  This is 80 points lower than the New York cut points and 9 percentile points lower. (read here: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/sat/12b_6661_SAT_Benchmarks_PR_120914.pdf)

Lisa Litvin covered Common Core and Common Core testing in the younger grades and test refusal. She explained how kids were losing their love of learning because of the new early childhood standards.  She spoke eloquently about how our children in younger grades are losing their love of learning because of the fast pace required by the CCLS.  Young children talk of no time for play and too much writing.  Lisa, in her role as a PTA officer spoke of one child that said he didn't want to write his name anymore because he had to write it so much at school.  In all of our meetings Lisa pushed for a review team to assess Common Core, determining what is working and what isn't, and how our children are faring.  Lisa firmly stated that the panel should be put in place immediately with a firm end date.

Terry Kalb spoke about how Cuomo’s education agenda has and will continue to marginalize and hurt our children with disabilities.  Terry, a retired special education teacher and special education advocate, spoke soundly, and with concrete examples, how Governor Cuomo’s current education “reform” agenda, and the one that Cuomo is proposing, would indeed continue to NOT offer our children with disabilities a free and appropriate education.  Terry also firmly expanded on the social justice issues of Governor Cuomo’s education plans.  She spoke of the fact that charters do not serve all children,  they “cream” via lottery for the most motivated children, and how they continue to hyper-segregate our communities. 

Suzanne Coyle, spoke passionately about her three children with a specific focus on her daughter, who is a student with disabilities.  Suzanne spoke from the heart when she shared stories of her daughter during testing situations.  Suzanne added that the tests contribute to narrowing of the curriculum and take away a teacher's ability to meet every child's needs.  Suzanne explained that this is so evident with students who have IEP's (Individual Education Plans).  Curriculum being driven by the tests does not allow a teacher to teach to the unique abilities of all children.   She further expanded that kids are losing out on meaningful, quality instruction time in lieu of additional ELA and Math lessons as well as test prep.  Suzanne shared how she had to do some additional advocating for her daughter, just to be able to include subjects such as Art in her schedule.  She was initially informed that there was "no room"  for specials in her daughters schedule.  The reason there was no room was because she had to have extra Math and English Labs.  Suzanne shared that she felt her daughter was being discriminated against because she has an IEP and she blamed testing, the Common Core, and the state education department.   Suzanne stated what  concerns her the most is that there are many children out there who are being denied the education they deserve, one that is tailored to them and their needs.

Bianca Tanis spoke eloquently about the Education Tax Credit, children with disabilities, and about the refusal movement.  On several occasions Bianca asked, quite directly, if the Senators would support the Test Refusal bill that was being drafted by the Senate.  Bianca also highlighted the inequitable way in which school districts currently handle test refusals and notify parents of state testing. This denies some parents, especially English Language Learners and parents of students with disabilities, access to the practice of test refusal and ultimately denies some parents the equal opportunity to protect their child from a practice that they deem harmful.

What was the response?
Senator Valesky  listened attentively, agreed with decoupling education from the budget but didn’t say much.  He had no questions for us, took our literature, and thanked us for coming.   Senator Latimer was very much in agreement with all we had to say.  He expressed his disappointment with Cuomo attaching education to the budget.  He was very grateful for our letter and very interested in what we all had to say .  Mike Lillis and Marla met with Senator Peralta’s aide.  They left the others up with Senator Latimer who was gracious with his time.  Mike and Marla were able to share the NYSAPE letter and some of our major concerns with Senator Peralta's aide.  Senator Peralta’s aide took copious notes and thanked us for coming in.  Back as a group we met with Senator Lavelle’s aide.  We spoke about all issues outlined above but, in our opinion, his whole demeanor changed when we started to talk about the education tax credit (Lavelle is a supporter of the education tax credit).  At the end of the meeting Senator Lavalle’s aide refused to take the NYSAPE letter.  We then were lucky to meet Senator Murphy as he came off the Senate floor.  As a father of young children he is very supportive of an end to High Stakes Testing.  The Senator shared with us that the key to this is parents keeping the pressure on.  He is sponsoring a test refusal bill and told us to get the assembly to do the same.  Senator Murphy is also not happy with education being held hostage by the budget.  We then headed upstairs to Assemblywoman Nolan’s office.  Unfortunately,  Assemblywoman Nolan was called into an emergency meeting but we had the honor of meeting with her education aide Katie.  She took great notes and assured us that the Assemblywoman was a great supporter of funding and resourcing public education.  Our last meeting of the day was with Senator Flanagan.   He asked many questions about our stance on education issues we are fighting against. He didn’t dialogue much but based his discussion on asking questions.  He was concerned that many of the issues we had were really issues that local Boards of Education should be addressing.  He also insisted that many of our complaints and issues lie with the state education department.  One of his aides reminded us of a bill that was passed last year limiting test prep and that local school districts, if they are test prepping, were to blame.   It seemed to us that the Senator was worried about being “misquoted” and therefore afraid to engage in real dialogue about what was happening in Education.  In fact he went so far at the end of the meeting to state that if he was “misquoted” there would not be another meeting with him.  Sadly, he ended the meeting on that note – threatening public school parents and teachers.  Perhaps he was rude to us because we don’t have the money to buy him off.  StudentsFirst, an organization that supports charters and privatization, is his biggest donor (see here:   http://votesmart.org/candidate/campaign-finance/4315/john-flanagan-jr#.VRbbJPnF-SY)   Don’t worry Senator Flanagan, we don’t want another meeting with you.  We will, however, look forward to meeting with the person who unseats you in 2016. 

How do we feel it went?
In a nutshell, all the lawmakers we met with, with the exception of Flanagan, were in total agreement with us that what Cuomo is doing is detrimental to our children and public education.  We don’t know what the future will  hold but we were able to go in and represent parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers regarding the agenda that Cuomo has set forth to hurt our children, our public schools schools, and our communities.  We know they all listened but did they hear us.   We shall see when they vote on the budget and on education policy. 

Follow up – of the Lawmakers we met here is who voted YES to dismantling public education in New York State.

Valesky, Lavelle, Murphy, Nolan, Flanagan  - all voted YES on an Education Bill that will dismantle public education in New York.  Shame on you – WE WILL REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER




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