New Paltz teachers, activists rally against high-stakes tests

Pictured are some of the members of the panel of speakers at last week's education rally in New Paltz. Right to left are: Jon Stern, Mike Lillis, Arielle Chiger, Michael O'Donnell, Brian Cournoyer and Alison Easton. Members of the panel not pictured are: Bianca Tanis and Kelly McElroy. (photos by Lauren Thomas)

Pictured are some of the members of the panel of speakers at last week’s education rally in New Paltz. Right to left are: Jon Stern, Mike Lillis, Arielle Chiger, Michael O’Donnell, Brian Cournoyer and Alison Easton. Members of the panel not pictured are: Bianca Tanis and Kelly McElroy. (photos by Lauren Thomas)

Tied in with the recently passed $142 billion New York State budget was a slew of changes to public education. In New Paltz, those changes aren’t altogether welcome.

Teachers, students, activists and parents gathered at New Paltz Central High School last week for a rally against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education reforms, Common Core and high-stakes testing.

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Speakers at the rally painted a grim picture of public education in New York State. They spoke of a corrosive atmosphere of demoralized, over-tested kids, stressed out by the prospect that their bad grades could cause their favorite teacher to get fired.

 

Gap Elimination Adjustment leaves controversial legacy

For Brian Cournoyer, president of the New Paltz Board of Education, the state budget continues the governor’s “attack on public education.” Before he ran for the board, Cournoyer got involved as a parent fighting to save school programs from the chopping block.

What he didn’t appreciate five years ago was how large a role the New York State Legislature played in those cuts, he said.

Pictured speaking at the rally is retired elementary school teacher Karen Cathers.

Pictured speaking at the rally is retired elementary school teacher Karen Cathers.

One policy that caused teacher layoffs and program cuts in New Paltz is the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) rules, which have been in place since 2010.

“Gap Elimination Adjustment was a nice way of saying that the state was going to close a big gap in its budget by cutting aid to education,” he said. “It was supposed to be a one-time deal. It was extended under Governor Cuomo, despite the budget surplus of the next few years, and continues to this day.”

Back then, the state was struggling to make up a $10 billion budget deficit. So the austerity measure fit the times. But it lingered.

New Paltz Central School District saw state aid drop. While aid has increased, local schools still aren’t back to 2008 funding levels. In all, district officials estimate they lost out on more than $11 million in state aid during the Gap Elimination Adjustment’s lifetime.

Cournoyer likened the GEA gamesmanship to a shell game, and saying “this is the kind of tactic you’d expect from a shifty used car salesman.”

Michael O’Donnell, with the group Future4NPZ, pointed to a triple threat: the foundation aid freeze, the property tax cap and the GEA. Altogether, those policies mean larger class sizes and roughly 30 teachers laid off in New Paltz.

“I’m angry because I’ve been robbed, and my children have been robbed. And you’ve been robbed,” O’Donnell said.

 

Once silent, local teachers speak out

Arielle Chiger, a teacher at Duzine Elementary School, described a torturous onslaught of English language and math testing facing kids.

“This has to stop,” Chiger said. “Our children are being used to fabricate data for no other purpose than to make a small group of people very, very wealthy.”

Momentum to implement Common Core, the emphasis on charter schools — launched in part by the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” — rely on a narrative that paints public schools as failed institutions.

“Schools need to buy the Common Core materials to pass the Common Core state tests,” she said. “If they don’t perform well, the teachers are fired, the schools are defunded and the kids are sent to charter schools.”

Chiger added: “This is an unprecedented attack on basic human and civil rights. We need to fight back now.”

Scores from the Common Core tests play a larger role in teacher evaluations under the new law. If their kids perform poorly two years in a row, a teacher can lose their license.

New Paltz High School science teacher Jon Stern tries to stay out of politics. He figured Common Core — and the politics putting test after test on kids’ desks — would evaporate one day. But it hasn’t. Albany’s attacks on education make him feel cornered.

“The whole system is out of kilter,” Stern said. “It’s a house of cards.”

Teacher evaluations have taken away time educators once spent on professional development. Common Core is driving veteran teachers out of the profession, and is scaring applicants away from teacher training programs in record numbers, he added.

“There’s been a tremendous personal fallout among those of us who’ve been wrongly accused,” Stern said. “I’m a teacher 29 years. During that time, I’ve had over 100 evaluations — every one of them good.

“I’ve worked with a co-teacher for the last eight years, Jared Avigliano. He and I chose to work with special education students — chose to because we find it interesting. We find it a particular challenge. We think we have a pretty good talent for it. Every observation we’ve ever had together has been really good.

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“Two years ago, because of this system, both Jared and I fell below the 75% line, which determines if you’re ‘effective’ or not. You don’t think there’s any personal fallout from that? I work with a tremendously talented teacher. What I’ve seen it do to him is unforgivable.”

Stern added: “What I’ve seen it do to other teachers around this district is unforgivable. What I’ve seen it do to the students of those teachers is unforgivable too — because it is using them as pawns in someone else’s game.”

April 7’s rally was sponsored by the local PTAs, the teachers’ union and a handful of local advocacy groups.