OLEAN — They called him out of touch. They called him elitist.
Asserting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has no understanding of public education, its value and its needs, nearly 300 area school teachers, administrators and supporters attended the “What Kids Need” rally Thursday evening at Olean High School, organized by the Olean Teachers’ Association (OTA).
A procession of speakers attacked the governor’s proposed public education reforms, which call for more emphasis on high-stakes testing, heighten the impact of those tests on teacher evaluations, and sap the energy and creativity from once-vibrant classrooms.
And the governor’s perceived threat of tying increased state aid funding to the passage of his reforms in the state Legislature — while holding “hostage” next year’s funding figures needed for each district to draft a budget — are bully tactics, they added.
“Public education is under attack. And I ask myself, ‘Why?’ Is it because it failed us? I don’t think so,” began Dr. Colleen Taggerty, Olean City School District superintendent. “I’m a product of public education, and I’m very proud of it. Is it because we’ve failed our students now? I think not.
“Is there room for growth, continuous improvement? Absolutely, in any organization, in any business there is room. But are we failing our students? We are not.”
Educators across New York state have condemned Cuomo’s apparent “punishment” of public education. The front cover of the February edition of NYSUT UNITED, the official magazine of the New York State United Teachers, reads: “He has no respect for you or your profession. Fight Back!”
And Paul Hessney, a former OCSD foreign language instructor and current board of education member, stoked that fight.
“We’re at the mercy of a governor who represents not us, as he should, but who represents himself and his personal interests and agenda and his wealthy contributors,” Hessney said.
Hessney blasted Cuomo for lumping the typically well-performing small-city and rural school districts of the Southern Tier in with often-failing, large inner-city schools.
“We are not those districts,” he yelled. “Where they have a history of failure, we have a history of success.”
In his State of the State address in January, which also included the executive budget, Cuomo proposed a $1.1 billion increase to public school state aid only if state lawmakers approve his reforms. If the Legislature doesn’t, Cuomo said school districts can expect the aid levels to freeze for at least the next school year despite ever-increasing costs and five years of losses to schools statewide through the gap elimination adjustment (GEA).
With the state’s budget due April 1 and school budgets set for public votes May 19, Cuomo has additionally withheld state aid “runs,” which give predicted aid revenues that schools rely upon to determine their spending plans and local property tax levies.
OTA President Dave Lasky once again questioned the GEA, which was originally meant to close a massive state budget gap in 2009-10 and has continued to funnel billions of state aid dollars from public schools even after the state’s deficit has become a multibillion-dollar surplus.
“There is no longer a budget gap, however this measure of taking money away from public education is still in place,” Lasky said. “Many districts are still operating on state funding levels far less than the amount they received in 2008.”
Increased standardized testing has made for a hostile school environment, said Cuba-Rushford teacher Jason Stupp.
“It’s no wonder ... we hear stories about crying children,” Stupp said. “Children who hate school, children whose natural curiosity and energy has been disrupted, and whose inherent love for learning and discovery has been tainted by one-size-fits-all solutions under the ever-more-intrusive gaze of the corporate overseer in (Pearson VUE Testing), who’s laughing all the way to the bank with millions of taxpayer dollars for flawed and short-sighted testing materials.”
Stupp, a father of three, cited his 7-year-old son, Coleton, as an example.
“He used to like school. Now he complains almost daily sometimes to the point of tears,” he said.
The cause isn’t mean classmates or teachers, he added. Those teachers are Stupp’s friends.
“And I know how heartbroken they are to see kids feeling this way in their classes,” Stupp said. “They feel helpless, overworked, overburdened.”
Speakers further called out Cuomo’s desire to increase the 20 percent rate state testing currently plays in teacher evaluations to 50 percent. Teachers have argued the relatively new and rigorous Common Core curriculum, which has been installed in 43 states — two have dropped out — and the District of Columbia, could yield false “ineffective” scores.
And those “ineffective” scores, they’ve noted, could confound the process of achieving job security, as Cuomo has recommended extending the three-year period of “effective” evaluations required for tenure to five years, with one “ineffective” rating, starting the process over.
“I’ve never met a teacher who is against being evaluated,” Eric Talbot, Cuba-Rushford Teachers’ Association president, told the crowd. “However, teachers want to be evaluated fairly. Having 50 percent of an evaluation come from a standardized test that is not written to the ability level of their students is ludicrous.
“Gov. Cuomo, work with us. All teachers want what is best for kids. We could create real reforms and progress that help students and strengthen our educational system.”
Attendees were urged to petition elected state officials through letters, emails, postcards and social media. After the rally, teachers from various districts posed for photos with a cardboard cutout of Cuomo, posting the photos to social media to urge the governor to visit their classrooms.
Other speakers were former Olean Mayor Linda Witte and husband Dr. Gilbert Witte, Alfred State College instructor Karen Young and CSEA local 805 President Brad Camp.
(Contact reporter Kelsey M. Boudin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)