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Karen Magee: Thoughts On Back To School

In just a few weeks, parents will send their children back to school. Already, we see vans and S-U-Vs on the Thruway, packed to the gills with the belongings that college students need to fill their dorm rooms and start the semester off right.

It’s a sign that summer is, unfortunately, coming to a close.

Moreover, it’s an opportunity to think about all that’s happened over the last few months in public education and – perhaps more importantly – what’s ahead of us.

While summer is a time for re-charging, I also know that many teachers spend a considerable number of hours in July and August taking classes; engaging in professional development and doing curriculum work with their colleagues. This enables them to stay grounded in their profession and hit the ground running in September.

Many teachers – and local teachers’ unions – use the summer to stay engaged in their communities. For example, local unions in the North Country and around the Capital District have been leading activities through First Book, a project that puts brand new books in the hands of youngsters so they can develop a love for reading.

With W-A-M-C and the United Way, NYSUT and local teachers are again handing out backpacks full of school supplies in high-needs communities. This helps to ensure that students who live in poverty can begin the year on equal footing with their peers.

Equality – and opportunity – will be two important watchwords this upcoming school year.

NYSUT is anxiously awaiting a court ruling in what’s known as the Maisto case.

Eight small city school districts are challenging the way New York State funds public education. The eight districts say the state is denying them the basic resources they need to provide their students with the constitutionally mandated sound, basic education.

These districts are struggling to educate their students without enough funding to provide reasonable class sizes, a full and rigorous curriculum, programs for high-need students and English Language Learners, and other essentials for academic success.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, over the years, Albany’s school funding formula has short-changed our state’s neediest communities.  A win in state Supreme Court can lead to a much greater investment in ALL of our public schools, especially those hit hardest by budget cuts.

Opportunity and quality teaching are the linchpins of student success in K-12, as they are in higher education.

At our colleges and universities, the high cost of tuition and the burden of student debt threaten to choke off opportunity for many bright, young students, who simply can’t afford to attend college or who are worried about taking on so much debt.

Again, while we are heartened by the modest investment made in public higher education to lead our state into the green economy, we need the state to step up and make a much greater investment in SUNY, CUNY and our community college systems – and their faculty -- to provide greater opportunities for New Yorkers to attend college, without stifling debt.

While there will always be challenges, I’m optimistic that the winds of change are blowing through our state. More and more, legislators and policymakers see the folly of austerity. They are beginning to understand all the positives that result when New York invests in teachers and students – from pre-kindergarten all the way through our graduate schools.

When schools and colleges kick off around Labor Day, I’m hopeful we will enjoy a watershed year for public education.

Karen E. Magee 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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