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Commentary & Opinion

Karen Magee: The Battle for Public Education

A battle for the future of public education is simmering in Albany.  It’s a battle that – as president of New York State United Teachers – I’m very comfortable having.

On one side are a handful of New York City billionaire hedge fund managers. Super-rich guys like Paul Tudor Jones and Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer. They have contributed heavily to Governor Andrew Cuomo and they believe they know how to “reform” public education.

Cuomo and his billionaire friends want you to believe public education is failing. Their “remedy” is a greater reliance on test score data; a punitive evaluation system; more unaccountable charter schools and eliminating due process rights. 

Of course, none of these New York City hedge fund managers know anything about how public schools work in Kingston or Middletown or Albany, or the challenges that students and teachers face.  They are super rich… but they are clueless about public education.

On the other side are students, parents and educators – the people who know that public education works -- and works very well.  Our public education system is one of the best in the nation, and a ladder to college and the middle class for so many children.

Parents and students and teachers are the experts. We know what’s needed – and it’s NOT more standardized testing.  It’s NOT more charters or focusing on a few bad apples.  And, it’s NOT designing punitive systems that misuse flawed data to inaccurately rate teachers.

That’s the wrong conversation. It’s a distraction from what we really need to be talking about in New York.

First, we should be celebrating the educational excellence found all over New York. The vast majority of our public schools are doing fantastically. And, New York has the most highly skilled, professional teaching force in the nation. In places where students struggle, there is, frankly, almost always a direct correlation to poverty and societal problems that affect teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear a plan from Governor Cuomo or his self-proclaimed “reformers” to break the cycle of poverty and under-funding.  There’s not much discussion about to use research-proven programs to help children in poor communities.  

We should be talking about conditions that impact teaching and learning: class sizes, involvement of parents, ensuring quality early childhood education for more children – in short, turning the focus away from testing, and back to teaching and learning."

And, most importantly, we should be talking about education funding.

Over the years, New York State has shortchanged school districts by billions of dollars. More than half of the state’s districts are getting less state aid today than in 2008.

We should be talking about devastating inequity in how we fund public education. Under the current state formula, students who need the most often get the least – and that is immoral.

On New Year’s Eve, I stood outside the gates of the executive mansion and called on Governor Cuomo to hold public forums. I urged him to travel around the state and listen to the real concerns of parents, teachers and students.

He’ll hear that they love their public schools, value local control and trust their teachers to work alongside them, as partners, in the best interests of their communities.

I doubt the Governor will do it.

The Governor – and Chancellor Tisch, for that matter – are content to align themselves with the billionaires and continue to scapegoat teachers and blame public schools.

That’s a shame.  Because -- let me tell you -- if we have to have a big battle, the Governor can take the hedge funders and their big campaign donations.

We’ll take all the parents, students and teachers in New York State and We. Will. Win.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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