Dethrone the King

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Late last week President Obama announced that he is nominating John King to officially take over as Education Secretary (he is currently Interim Secretary).  While AFT President Randi Weingarten has taken some heat for seeming to downplay the harm that King did to New York and praising his efforts at NYSED, it was encouraging to see NYSUT President Karen Magee being unequivocal, saying the appointment is  “extremely troubling and sends the wrong signal to educators and parents nationwide.”

 

King still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, so this might be a good time to contact Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to let them know that we are not okay with this.

Click here for contact information for Senators Schumer and Gillibrand
or
Click here to use the form letter set up by the BATs (TAKES 1 minute!)

As a side note, you may have seen a story in USA Today stating that John King “apologized to the nation’s teachers” for attacking and blaming them “for the challenges our nation faces.” Two quick points: First, the timing of his remarks (coming shortly before the announcement of his nomination) makes it pretty clear this was just pro-active damage control. Second, while King did say “All of us – at the local, state and federal level, the Education Department included – have to take responsibility for the climate that exists,” USA Today is flat out wrong. At no point in his speech did he utter the words “sorry,” “apology,” “regret,” or anything even close. He admits that he and others have done harm to the teaching profession, but he is NOT apologizing for it.

To recap: by his own admission, he screwed up royally, he doesn’t have to apologize, and not only are there no negative consequences, he is actually being rewarded for his failure. So, please,

Send an e-mail right now!

 

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Scalia and Friedrichs

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this past Saturday at the age of 79. The bulk of recent reports give the impression that his death means the end of the Friedrich’s case, but the full story is a bit more complicated.

The death of a sitting Supreme Court Justice is, of course, huge news, and this one in particular will have tremendous reverberations. It would be nice if we lived in a world where politics could be put aside for a short period following the passing of a public figure, but statements from Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and others within hours of the Scalia’s death remind us that we don’t. And while it seems crass (regardless of one’s political views) to so quickly ask “how will this affect us?,” that horse is out of the barn and miles down the road. There’s been a lot written already about how Justice Scalia’s death will impact pending cases, so here’s a quick summary on what it means for public sector unions in particular.

It’s pretty much a given that, without Justice Scalia, the court will split 4 to 4 on the Friedrichs case. It has been largely reported that, in the event of a tie vote, the lower court ruling stands, which, in this case was the Ninth Circuit Court decision in favor of the California Teachers Association. In other words, if conventional wisdom is correct, the right of unions to collect agency (or “fair share”) fees will remain intact.

HOWEVER, as a number of articles have pointed out, rather than letting the lower court ruling stand, the Court could elect to re-hear arguments the following year. Tom Goldstein, publisher of the SCOTUSblog, thinks this is the most likely scenario for the close cases the court is hearing this session. If he is correct, then the selection of the next Supreme Court Justice will be crucial as Friedrichs and other close cases would be heard again once the court is back to nine justices.

Further, even if a tie vote does revert the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court decision, that isn’t the end of the story. It would be the end of the Friedrichs case itself, but at a meeting last fall one of NYSUT’s attorneys mentioned that there are a number of other similar cases working their way through the system. A reverted decision would mean that “the Supreme Court’s consideration of the case has no precedential value,” so once those other cases reach the Supreme Court, we will be back in exactly the same boat – depending on who is eventually confirmed as the ninth justice.

Republicans have vowed to block any nominee that Obama puts up so that Justice Scalia’s replacement will be selected by the next President. And although Democrats have argued that it is unprecedented and an abdication of Constitutional responsibilities for Republicans to obstruct in this manner, they can probably succeed.

Bottom line: Justice Antonin Scalia’s death almost certainly means a reprieve for public sector unions, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen in the near future. 

Legislative Updates

The 12th Regional Legislative Breakfast was held this morning at Longwood Middle School. It included presentations from the NYSSBA (NY State School Boards Association) and Eastern Suffolk BOCES, as well as a panel discussion featuring Congressman Lee Zeldin, State Senators Tom Croci, Ken Lavalle, and Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Assemblymen Fred Theile, Dean Murray, and Andrew Garbarino.

The following is not a full review of all the topics covered, but a brief summary of some of the most critical issues that we’ll be facing.

School Funding

The Governor’s proposed budget, announced in January, includes a $991M increase in school funding. This falls far short of the recommendation of the NYSSBA, who calculate the actual need as $2.3 Billion. At this morning’s breakfast State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan reminded the audience that the Governor’s budget is a starting point for negotiations, and promised more: “I’d say we’d be at an absolute floor of $1.5 billion, probably higher.”

For reference, last year’s increase was about $1.6B, up from the Governor’s originally proposed $1.2B, but still far less than the recommendations of NYSSBA ($2.2B) and the Regents ($2B).

 

Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA)

The Governor’s proposed budget calls for elimination of the GEA over two years. The consistent message from the legislators, as well as the School Boards and Superintendents Associations, was that it needs to be eliminated once and for all this coming school year. The legislators said this view is held by both parties in both houses of the Legislature and implored us – administrators, educators, parents: “you need to be loud, clear, and direct. You need to call, you need to write [the Governor].”

Note: There is a link at the bottom of this post for you to do just that.

 

APPR

A question was asked about making changes to 3012-d (the new APPR law) so that districts won’t lose state aid if they don’t have new plans submitted by July 1st for September approval/implementation. Senator LaValle dismissed the question saying there were “no plans” for this. Senator Flanagan echoed this sentiment.

The handout from the Superintendents Association included this as one of their recommendations for fixing 3012-d, but also included one very unsettling recommendation: they would like to see the rules amended so that, as long as they’ve bargained in good faith, school districts would be allowed to “submit APPR plans without union sign-off.” While this is not currently on the table, it is disturbing to know that this is something that the superintendent’s a pushing for.

There was no discussion at this meeting about the larger question of repealing or revising the Education Transformation act overall, but the issue was brought up at a similar event which took place in Jericho, where the the notion was rejected. According to Newsday:

“Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) said even though he supports ending the requirement that student test scores eventually be used to help determine teachers’ and principals’ performance ratings, the governor would veto a repeal, and he doesn’t believe there are enough votes in the legislature to override a veto.

“Instead of the legislature fighting a losing battle, Marcellino, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Regents and local school districts should use the leeway they have within the law to limit the impact of the mandate.”

The same Newsday article quoted Regent Roger Tilles saying that the moratorium will give time to reexamine APPR and “I believe the Regents will come up with a new evaluation system pretty much from scratch.” But as has been noted previously, the most onerous aspects of APPR are codified in state law and the Regents have only a narrow band which they can modify.

 

Tax Cap

Although there is no talk about getting rid of the tax cap, there was some discussion about two specific aspects. The first concerns the fact that the cap does not allow for adjustments for increased enrollment, a particular issue for districts like Riverhead whose student populations continue to rise. Senator LaValle dismissed this out of hand, saying it’s “not going to change,” and that additional funding would have to come from other means (i.e. increasing state aid).

The other issue is the fact that despite being called a “2% tax cap,” the law actually allows for increases of 2% or the rate of inflation – whichever is lower, meaning that with this year’s low increase in the CPI, districts can only increase their tax levy by .12%. The legislators expressed a desire to fix this, saying they desired a “true 2%,” or at least a floor of 1%, but did not offer any assurances that this would actually come to pass.

Assemblyman Murray pointed out that the Governor had promised mandate relief as part of the tax cap, but that this has never been followed through with. There was discussion about the need for identifying unfunded and underfunded mandates, but no solid commitments were made about fixing this issue.

As noted above, eliminating one of the largest, most time-consuming, and wasteful unfunded mandates of all, the new APPR plan, was not brought up.

 

Opt-Out

The US Dept of Ed “recently sent a letter to states with high opt out rates warning that there would be serious sanctions if their participation rate drops below 95%.” The legislators at the breakfast addressed this issue, assuring the audience that they did not believe there was any chance this would happen. Representative Zeldin pointed out that under the law, the Federal Government cannot penalize a district directly.  It could potentially withhold a portion of funding to the state overall, and it would be up to the states to decide whether to penalize individual districts. He said that threat was inconsistent with ESSA and that he would be active in preventing any penalty.

Assemblyman Murray said Commissioner Elia had not answered the question directly but that Governor Cuomo himself has said that funding should not be withheld for opt-outs. Senator Flanagan also stated that he did not think that there would be any enforcement of the 95% participation rule.

Assemblyman Murray also asked the question that everyone should be asking: If these tests don’t count for students and don’t count for teachers, “why are we doing it?”

The clear message from the legislators was that parents should not hesitate to opt-out, as there will be no financial consequences.

 

Board of Regents Elections

There are currently two open seats on the Board of Regents (one regional and one “at-large) and the decision of who will fill them (which is made by the Legislature) could potentially have very positive (or negative) consequences over the next few years. Senator Croci and Assemblymen Theile and Murray stressed the importance of selecting Regents who are involved in public education. Murray pointed out that this is a shift from how Regents were selected in the past. He also mentioned that one of the candidates had spoken positively about tests accounting for 50% of test scores, but assured us that this individual would not be moving forward in the process.

There are 5 people interviewing for the regional seat and 41 applicants for the at-large seat. As a side note, one of the applicants for the at-large seat is Marla Kilfoyle, a Long Island teacher whose name you may recognize.  She is one of the leaders of the Badass Teachers Association and is very active in Long Island Opt-Out. If you like, you can support Marla by clicking here.

 

Testing

One of the questions the legislators were asked was “What laws can be put in place so that the state test is not the only measure to evaluate students?”  Assemblyman Murray said that in his conversations with Commissioner Elia, she gave the impression that she believes testing is the only possible way to assess, which he called “boloney,” listing a host of other ways that teachers assess students. As great of a response as this was, it didn’t answer the actual question. Assemblyman Garbarino did answer it, although he simply claimed that there is “no law we can pass” to address the issue.

 

Analysis

What was infuriatingly frustrating about the event was the extent to which the legislators claimed to be in support of public education but powerless to help. Yielding the upper hand to the Governor in spending? Saying it’s up to US to petition the Governor on the GEA? Garbarino saying there’s no law they can pass on assessment? Marcelino saying they don’t want to fight a losing battle? The message seems to be, “we want to help, but there’s nothing we can do.”

Here’s a suggestion – they should do what they were elected to do. What do teachers do when we have students for whom it seems to be a losing battle? We fight for them anyway. Because very often you can turn those losing battles into victories. All we ask of our lawmakers is that they hold themselves to the same standards that we hold ourselves to and make the effort to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, our system is very much broken. The Governor and the heads of the Assembly and Senate hold inordinate power regarding what legislation gets passed. So as long as Cuomo is at the center, things will not go well for public education. It would be easy at this point to throw up our hands and give up, but that’s exactly how we got to this point. Rather what we need to do is make sure that our elected officials know we’re paying attention. Yes, our Senators and Assembly Members are afraid of Cuomo and the the heads of their parties, but of course, the bigger fear should be not being in office at all. Unfortunately, our elected officials are not intimidated by the voting public, and that’s what needs to change. It starts with a simple call or an email.

Please, please, PLEASE. Follow these links and write a quick note to your Assemblyman AND your Senator.

It can be short, simple, and even positive. Even something as brief as “I am supporting you because of your support for public education” or “I am a teacher and a voter, and I just want you to know that education issues are key part of how I decide who to vote for.”

 

Contact the Governor

Send a message to Governor Cuomo now to let him know the GEA needs to be restored.

The GEA was instituted during a time of a budget deficit. New York State now has a budget surplus, so it is unconscionable to continue siphoning away money from school districts.

Write your own message, or just cut and paste the paragraph above.

 

 

 

Update on the Lederman Case

A quick update on the Sheri Lederman case (click here for our previous posts on this topic).

Bruce Lederman, Sheri’s attorney (and husband) appeared on WCNY radio today to discuss the status of the lawsuit. (You can listen for yourself by clicking this link. The Lederman interview begins at 22:10). Here are the highlights:

In a not very surprising move, the State Ed Department filed a motion claiming that the case was made moot by the moratorium put in place in December. The Ledermans, of course, disagree, pointing out that the state will still be providing flawed growth scores during the next four years and that nothing has really changed. The judge will be taking statements on this argument on February 29th. The Ledermans expect the judge to rule against the State, allowing the suit to continue. Mr. Lederman indicated that, if the judge accepts the State’s argument, they will appeal that decision.

Additionally, presumably emboldened by the notion that the moratorium nullifies the Lederman’s case, the State offered a settlement in which Ms. Lederman’s poor growth score would be voided in exchange for their dropping the case. Needless to say, the Ledermans rejected this deal.

We’ll keep you posted.