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Long Island Teachers and Parents Protest Cuomo’s Education Policies

May 5, 2014
By Beth Borzone

Holbrook, NY – Over 2,000 teachers and parents protested Governor Cuomo’s education policies on Monday, chanting “Cuomo has got to go!” in front of Villa Lombardi’s, where the Governor was speaking at a Democratic fundraiser.  The protesters cited the reasons for their outrage:  the negative effects of high stakes tests on children, poor implementation of Common Core standards, a Tax Cap that is defunding their schools, and teacher evaluations linked to standardized tests.

“You don’t mess with people’s kids!” said Rahana Schmalacker, a member of Lace to the Top, a grassroots organization created by parents and teachers to protest common core testing.  The current testing environment “got people who previously didn’t feel that they belonged in political conversations into the conversation, Schmalacker said.  In about one year, Lace to the Top gained 13,090 members.

“Where this went wrong for the powers that be was that it started to hurt kids,” said Anthony Griffin, co-founder of Lace to the Top.  “Kids were coming home to the dinner table and getting sick and parents started to put the pieces together and realized that it was the tests,” Griffin explained. 

Jeanette Deutermann knows this from experience.  She started seeing changes in her own son.  He was stressed.  He started feeling badly about himself, saying things like, “I’m stupid,” “I’m never going to learn this.”  He started crying at night, exhibiting anxiety, and eventually school phobia.  “I got this nagging feeling as a mother,” Deutermann said.  As she spoke to other parents on the playground, she kept hearing, “Me, too.  Me, too.”

“I realized it was more of an epidemic and realized that something had to be done,” Deutermann said.  She tried talking to various government officials and policy makers to no avail.  “We did everything we could to send the message that this is not ok and nobody was listening,” she said.

Then, Deutermann took action, forming a Long Island Opt Out page on Facebook, which already has 17,000 followers.

“I learned that some parents in upstate New York had refused the test to stop the testing,” Deutermann said, explaining that Long Islanders have followed suit, “For the ELA, we had 20,000 refuse the test and we believe the number is going to go way up for math.”

Many teachers also feel that the governor’s educational policies hurt children and the quality of education in public schools.

“We’re here to send the message to the governor that education and the children of New York should be his first priority.  His policies and programs have failed the children in New York State and enraged their parents and advocates.  Common Core, his signature program, has met with outrage from parents on both the left and the right side of the aisle,” said Kevin Coyne, president of Brentwood Teachers Association, which represents the teachers in the largest suburban school district in the state.

“For students, the state’s obsession with standardized tests is not appropriate because it takes away valuable instructional time and it doesn’t promote a love of learning.  Learning is more than a test score,” said Kevin Pollitt, President, Garden City Teachers Association.

There are many other issues with the tests according to Deutermann, who in addition to founding Long Island Opt Out on Facebook is also a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education.   The test length is too long.  Students don’t get them back.  The tests are not used diagnostically to help students learn, she said.

Kevin Glynn, the other co-founder of Lace to the Top, used to make tests for the State Education Department and Pearson, but this experience eventually turned him into an advocate against the tests.  He started to believe that the test makers were purposely designing tests to make kids fail by increasing the length of the tests, the number of days tested, and the readability levels.  “In 2013, one month before the test, they told us that 70% (of the kids) would fail.  I couldn’t understand why,” Glynn said, “After the test…70% failed it, right on cue.   It really opened my eyes.”  According to Glynn test makers can adjust the cut scores to determine the percentage of failures.  “They can adjust the cut scores to fit whatever agenda they need to fill,” Glynn said.

The governor’s 2% tax cap is also major concern for many teachers, who feel that it is putting their school districts into financial distress.

“We need to send a strong message to the governor that his policies on education are not acceptable” said Mike Dolber, retired president of Bellmore-Merrick Secondary Teachers Association, “ The tax cap is destroying public education.”

“The tax cap is crippling our schools, said John Koscinski, Vice-President of Sewanhaka Federation of Teachers, “We’re not able to do what we need to. We’re faced with giving up programs and tools that we need to educate the kids in lieu of dollars and sense.  We can’t support 2014 programs when the budget is still at 2008.”

“The tax cap is damaging,” said Rosanne Mamo, President of Sewanhaka Federation of Teachers, “It’s creating more of a gap between the districts that have and the districts that don’t have.”

Christine Vasilev,  President of the Port Washington Teachers Association, agreed, adding that tax cap threatens our democratic principles.  “Public education is the great equalizer.  You cut off the funding to public education with a repressive and regressive tax cap; you are thwarting equal access and that’s my concern.”

Some teachers fear that underfunding and undermining school districts is a calculated attempt to move towards the privatization of public education.

“I feel the governor’s supporting an agenda that’s leading the way to privatization,” Dolber said.

The governor is “trying very hard to underfund our schools and make it impossible for us to raise revenue.  It’s obvious that he’s given up on teachers and public education in general.  He’s sided with the Charter School Movement.  He’s abandoned the traditional constituency of the Democratic Party in favor of the wealthy proponents of private education,” said Sean Mills, who is the Political Action Chair for the Jericho Teachers Association and on the steering committee for Take Action Long Island, the coalition of Nassau and Suffolk County teachers unions that helped organize Monday’s rally.

“I’m here because we need to make the governor understand that he’s anti-labor and anti-kid,” said Ken Ulric, retired teacher from Farmingdale, “He’ got to stop kowtowing to those people whose interest in education is money to political candidates instead of to the classroom.”

Many teachers also consider the evaluations linked to test scores unfair.

“They are using these tests as a weapon against teachers and schools rather than to improve learning,” Deutermann, who is not a teacher, said, lamenting that tying tests to teacher evaluations is changing the structure of the classroom, taking away from whole child learning and instead test prepping.

“We’re being rated on a test that he (Governor Cuomo) told the students wouldn’t count against them.  How much effort will my kids put in now?” said Harry Cuff, 8th grade math teacher and member of New York State United Teachers.

“People are angry because all Cuomo cared about was APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) and that’s what all the testing is about, evaluating teachers. This was never about the kids,” Bill Leacock, member of Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers, said.

Could this outrage over Cuomo’s educational policies affect the upcoming elections?

Many teachers waved signs stating, “We will remember in November.”

“He (governor Cuomo) has to understand that there are political consequences when you disappoint people who would ordinarily be your strong supporters.  They are not going to stand for it,” Dolber said.

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