With the refusal to supply school districts with aid runs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s position on educational funding this year is unpopular with many people involved in public education. Cuomo has tied this year’s state funding for public schools to adoption of his “reform” package. Feb. 23’s education forum at the M. Clifford Miller Middle School in Kingston brought together often-disparate groups who seemed to realize that they’re in this together more than they might have previously thought. They all have in common the thought that the governor is trying to coerce them to get what he wants.
The forum, hosted by the Alliance for Quality Education and the United Federation of Teachers, was designed to discuss everything from inequity in school funding, the prevalence of high-stakes testing, and the privatization of public education.
“I think my NYSUT [New York State United Teachers] people and I are having different conversations than we’ve ever had about what we do,” said Kingston schools Superintendent Paul Padalino, one of the forum’s key speakers. “We know that we care about the success of our students, but we sometimes have different opinions about how we’re going to get there. We have that commonality. But it seems that with what’s coming out of the governor’s office, I don’t know what the goal is there. There’s the talk that it’s about doing what’s best for kids, but there’s no cooperation, there’s no collaboration, there’s no outreach. There’s no conversation with the people who do it every day. That has definitely drawn groups together.”
Among the governor’s education proposals are stricter teacher evaluations, an extended period of time for earning tenure, the expansion of charter schools, and an increase in state oversight of struggling schools and districts. Presently, a quarter of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the results of standardized testing; Cuomo’s plan would double that. Additionally, Cuomo’s budget plan includes roughly $1.1 billion more for public education next year, far less than what many educators feel the state’s public schools really need.
In addition to Padalino, the forum included Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education; several local teachers; and Bianca Tanis, co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), an advocacy group which has drawn together over 50 independent groups to form a collective voice they hope Albany won’t be able to ignore.
According to Tanis, the grassroots approach is what that may have the greatest chance of success. Herself a New Paltz parent of an elementary-school student with a learning disability, Tanis said she and her husband brought concerns about how standardized testing might emotionally impact their son to school officials. When that proved unsuccessful, she said, they attempted to move higher and higher up the hierarchy.
“I went down every avenue to every person in power I could for help, and I was told, We recognize it will probably be very traumatic for him, but it’s the law and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Tanis said. “What changed that was the mobilization of parents. It wasn’t lawyers, it wasn’t people in power. It was parents and grassroots activism that changed this. New York State still does not have a legal refusal provision, but it’s my right.”
Locally, groups like Kingston Action for Education (KAFE) are helping push back. Last November, the Ulster County Legislature voted 23-0 for a resolution supporting the discontinuation of common-core implementation until the standards can be evaluated and improved at the state level.
At Monday’s meeting, some speakers were skeptical of the governor’s reforms and the lack of funding support, feeling these measures would set districts up for failure. “You withhold funding from schools, you create a situation where some school districts are able to spend $30,000 on a student and others are spending $13,000 on a student, and you create a situation of inequity,” said Tanis.
She was not shy about speculating about why the governor was doing what he is doing. “You deprive school districts of resources, you generate these test scores to call the schools failures, and you then have an excuse to close the schools and you have the basis to start charter schools,” she explained. “And we know that Gov. Cuomo has received an incredible amount of funding from the hedge-fund sector, and we know that a lot of these hedge-fund people are the backers of some of the biggest charter school chains and franchises in the United States. It’s all tied together.”
In districts like Kingston, where a significant number of students opted out of standardized tests for students in grades 3-8 last April, the governor’s criteria seem to minimize the chance for success. Padalino said that it doesn’t add up, especially when compared to the district’s improved graduation rate over the past few years.
“If you look at our 3-8 test scores, we’re a focus district, which means we’re in the bottom 10 percent of performers in ELA and math,” Padalino said. “But if you look at what we’ve done in the last three years in terms of graduation rates at Kingston High School, we’ve had dramatic improvement. We’re almost at 80 percent, above the state average. Again, 80 [percent] isn’t enough, but 80 is progress.”
Padalino added that the district’s graduation rate for African-American students was at nearly 70 percent (“We were in the low 50s four years ago”), and has also increased for other groups as well. “We’re seeing our kids supposedly not performing (in grades) 3-8, but after 13 years of school, K-12, we’re graduating 80 percent of our kids,” Padalino said. “Well, we’re not showing 80 percent of our kids proficient on the eighth grade ELA. So how are these things aligned? How do those things correlate?”
The fact that around 35 percent of students in grades 3-8 opted out of standardized tests last year, Padalino said, made the data inaccurate. “It’s very hard to look at that data and say that it’s a true snapshot of how we’re performing and our students’ abilities where academics are concerned,” he said. “It’s a flawed measurement.”
Padalino said the district will continue focusing its efforts internally on the academic success of its students, even as its administrators, teachers and parents continue their efforts to have their voices heard by the Cuomo administration. “This might not be a popular thing to say, but if we’re not doing our job we need to be held accountable for that,” Padalino said. “If there’s someone who can do it better, they should do it better. But if we’re doing our job and 100 percent of our kids are walking across that stage and graduating from high school, we’re not going to have those problems.”
Tanis said that her group will continue its push to have parents opt out of standardized tests on behalf of their children. “Focusing on high-stakes testing is hurting public education,” she said. “It narrows the curriculum and students are less engaged in their education. There’s absolutely no evidence or research that correlates increased academic achievement to standardized testing. Most of these reforms, they’re not really based on evidence. There’s nothing that proves that these reforms that governor Cuomo is putting out there will be in any way effective.”
NYSAPE and KAFE are co-hosting a forum about high-stakes testing and public education at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 16 at the Kingston Alliance Church at 90 Millers Lane in Kingston.