I recently attended the New NY Education Commission (Who came up with that name?) meeting in Buffalo. For those of you outside of the Empire State, this commission pretty much summarizes the current state of education reform across the country: the real stakeholders,students, parents and teachers, have little voice in the dialogue. This commission was started by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo because of his misleading and false statement that New York is 38th in educational results. The Commission is stacked with corporate and charter school types, with a few university leaders. No teachers, no students. Randi Weingarten, AFT President, is a member of this commission, but was not in attendance at the Buffalo meeting.
The meeting started with four groups of “experts” testifying. Not one of the these sixteen individuals is a current public school teacher or principal. The “expert” groups had three leaders of charter schools and several charter cheerleaders, not a surprise, as public school advocates knew the deck was stacked.
Two charter leaders talked about how their schools benefited from autonomy and money from private sources(Gates and a locally headquartered bank). I immediately wrote in my notes: ” Why don’t public schools get these same benefits?” Charters get free reign, while public schools get top-down decision making from Albany and Washington. A leader of Buffalo ReformED, a local pro-charter group, used the phrase schools should get “autonomy for accountability”. We know this catch phrase means using test results to judge teachers and schools. I can not see how using test scores to judge a school or teacher creates autonomy. Being tied to the testing regime does not free up educators to do anything but worry about mandated exams. This speaker from Buffalo ReformED is constantly quoted in the Buffalo News despite having no educational training or experience. Another member of Buffalo ReformED is the New York Assistant Secretary of Education, but again has no education experience at all. This certainly mirrors education reform nationally, people who have never worked in a school have influence over policy.
One local charter school superintendent blamed collective bargaining agreements for poor teacher quality. He claimed that teacher contracts prevented using staff development to “change behavior of staff”. (His salary is also a closely guarded secret in spite of the fact that they claim to be public schools - S.C.) My jaw dropped. Did this charter school leader mean he wanted to force educators to teach “his way”? Would this lead to educators being forced to use teaching methods advocated by their principal or other administrator? Whoa. Scary stuff. This is certainly part of what some charter advocates say : we know what is best, so do it our way. For an interesting look at a graduate school of education for Charter School teachers read this piece by Diane Ravitch and watch the videos of “exemplar” teaching.
Of course we heard from the Buffalo ReformED speaker, business community representative and superintendents on how teacher healthcare and the Triborough Amendment are hurting school budgets. Yes healthcare is costly, but would not national healthcare benefit all Americans and reduce the burden on local governments such as school districts? The Triborough Amendment strikes a balance in labor negotiations for public employees in New York State and is a frequent target of Corporate Reformers and School Boards.
Finally, two hours and twenty minutes into the three-hour meeting, public comments were allowed, albeit in a rushed fashion. Two local public school superintendents spoke about how state and federal budget cuts have decimated programs. A local teacher union president spoke about how the schools have laid off large amounts of staff, class sizes are growing, and kids are suffering. The teacher leader also discussed how unions have made concessions to help school districts balance their budgets.
Finally as part of the last group of public speakers, I had a turn. Time was waning and you could see that the panel’s attention was turning to getting out of the Queen City and heading home. Without hesitation I brought up the high-stakes testing culture and the amount of educational harm it is causing. I piggy-backed off the budgetary and mandate concerns of previous speakers by discussing the amount of money being wasted on our testing and data programs as well. This helped me transition into my final point, looking directly at New York’ Education Commissioner John King and stating that his website engageny.org confirms what we true reformers know is coming: the Common Core and PARCC assessments will lead to more testing beyond the current madness of NCLB.
Another teacher spoke after me about the cuts and how seniors at his high school are encouraged to leave early since there are fewer electives available. Our group did not receive any follow up questions or discussion and the commission packed up for the day.
As expected, the true stakeholders had little voice in the discussion. A couple of the university officials seemed receptive, but I doubt any of the “real” speakers changed the minds of the pro-charter crowd. To my friends defending public education: please go to the meetings, speak to the commission, but know the limited possibilities. Pour your energies into rallying the true grassroots of education: the parents and students of our public schools.