“If you talk about education today in most communities, it’s all about taxes,” says Jennifer Mangione. “A lot of people are upset about paying school taxes, but do they realize how much money our schools have lost in state aid to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA)? And how Gov. Cuomo is tying school aid to his reforms? We say, as a group, that it pays to talk about something other than taxes in education.”
The “we” Mangione refers to is PACE Saugerties (People Actively Committed to Education), a grassroots coalition she and other local parents formed in 2012 to initiate dialogue about the educational system. “And we allow for a conversation to take place in an open way that a Board of Education meeting can never do,” she says.
PACE Saugerties also wants to offer parents strategies to fight back against what they say is an attack on public education coming from Albany, with its diminished school aid funding and increasing support for charter schools.
PACE Saugerties will sponsor a public forum on Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the Frank D. Greco Senior Center at 207 Market St. There will be four speakers on the panel available to answer questions.
Saugerties High School Key Club members will be present to provide babysitting services during the session in order to free up parents to participate.
The panel of speakers includes Billy Easton, executive director for the Alliance for Quality Education; Heather Roberts, a parent and vice-president of the Bennett PTA in the Onteora Central School District; Bianca Tanis, a parent and special education teacher in the New Paltz Central School District and founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and Anna Shah, a parent and attorney with experience in education policy who is also with NYSAPE.
Attendees at the forum are welcome to ask questions about any aspect of the current educational system but the focus will be on the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) and its role in school funding and on parents’ rights in refusing high stakes testing.
The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) was enacted six years ago by Albany lawmakers to eliminate a $10-billion state budget deficit. Beginning with the 2009-2010 school year, the state deducted from each school district’s state aid allocation an amount to help the state bridge the gap in its revenue shortfall. It did the job, but balancing the state budget by diverting funding from public schools has resulted in $8.5 billion less statewide in state aid since that time, according to the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA).
School district officials in Ulster County, speaking at a recent education forum in New Paltz, said the loss countywide from the GEA is $116 million. Saugerties Superintendent Seth Turner said the tally here is $13.4 million.
Now that Albany has traded its deficit for a surplus, public school officials and advocates statewide (and parents like those in PACE Saugerties) are calling for an end to the GEA.
Equally distressing to the Saugerties group is the way in which Governor Cuomo is tying school funding to his reforms. He has advised lawmakers that he’s willing to approve as much as a 4.8 percent increase in school aid, but only if his education reforms are approved. If they are not, the increase in state aid to schools will be no more than 1.7 percent. Negotiations between the governor and Legislature will produce an exact amount. The final state budget is due April 1.
The governor’s reforms include a teacher evaluation system that will base as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s ratings on student test scores, making it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier for them to be fired. And those “high stakes tests” have become a rallying point for parents who believe the tests are detrimental to their child’s overall education in sacrificing a well rounded education in favor of concentrating on test prep.
“What can we do to make our voices heard?” asks Mangione. “How can we prove that we, as parents, are upset about reforms? We refuse the tests, that’s what we do. We refuse the tests that are an unfair assessment of our children’s education.”
The high stakes tests are “setting our children up to fail,” she says, adding that the questions on her third grader’s test are written for a seventh or eighth grade level reader. “And we don’t want corporations to take over our schools. We are protecting our public schools. My sixth and third grader will not be taking the tests. I’m going to refuse these tests again and again and again until I’m certain our schools are safe from corporate takeover.”