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Long Island Teachers to Cuomo: “Support Public Education!”

May 27, 2014
By Beth Borzone

Huntington, Long Island – On Wednesday, May 21, a crowd of approximately 2,200 people, mostly teachers, protested outside the New York State Democratic Convention at the Huntington Hilton to send Governor Cuomo the message that they need his support.  The focus of the rally was supporting public education and the tone was more subdued than the virulent rally three weeks ago in Holbrook where teachers vehemently chanted, “Cuomo must go!” and “We’ll remember in November!”

The change in tone resulted from a recent dialogue between the governor and the teachers.  Still hopeful for support from the Governor, the leadership of New York State United Teachers did not support the rally, but many grassroots teachers supported by their local union presidents, remained skeptical of Cuomo’s support and wanted to make the message clear that their vote was not to be taken for granted.

Tony Felicio, Jr., President of the Connetquot Teachers Association and organizer of the rally, was one of the teachers who met with Governor Cuomo in recent weeks.  Felicio described the encounter:

“We met with him (Cuomo) a day or two after the last rally.  His campaign manager called and asked if we would like to meet with the governor.  I invited other presidents to go with me.  We met with him for an hour and a half.  It was Cuomo, his campaign manager, and his educational advisor.

“We shared our concerns.  He listened and he was cordial.  We were straight with him.  He agreed with us that using assessments to rate teachers and not children was unacceptable.” 

Felicio said that Cuomo reassured him that he was going to try to put together a bi-partisan group with 20 days left in the legislative session to create a law to stop teachers from being evaluated based on test scores.

For a number of days after the meeting, the Cuomo campaign asked him to cancel the Huntington rally, Felicio said.

“We said, ‘We’re not doing that,’ ” Felicio continued, “We appreciated the time, his cordiality, but nothing has happened.  As a compromise, we toned the message down, it’s less anti-Cuomo and more about supporting public education.”

The supporting education mantra was vocalized by a number of local union leaders.

“We’re here to support public education.  We have to make sure that these Democrats support public education, especially here on Long Island,” said Christopher Figaro, Vice President of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association.

“I am happy to be out here supporting public education with my colleagues,” said Mark Steinberg, President of the Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers.

Many union members at the grassroots level, however, wanted to express their outrage over Cuomo’s education policies and were not convinced that the recent dialogue would amount to anything substantial.

“It says a lot about the state of modern politics that a group like teachers are picketing outside the Democratic Convention against a Democratic governor, because the governor no longer has regard for his traditional constituents.  The governor just attracts wealthy donors and appears to not even hear the concerns of the teachers.  He makes policy without our input and doesn’t seem to care if we like it or not,” said Sean Mills, Political Action Chair, Jericho Teachers Association.

“Governor Cuomo needs to understand the harm that is being caused to our children.  To get education reform right, it must not be about what is good for the corporations and getting re-elected, it must be about the children and trusting the practitioners who work with them every day,” said Joe Hartig, social studies teacher, Hicksville Congress of Teachers.

“Cuomo isn’t listening to teachers, parents, or administrators,” said John Arettines, a third grade teacher in Bethpage, “The Common Core is ok, but the tests are made way above the kids’ thinking abilities and it leads to kids crying in class, panicking over tests.  It affects their self-concept and they think they aren’t smart when they are smart… They should have developmental psychologists on the board of people who make these tests.”

In addition to the effect the tests are having on young children, Arettines expressed concern about the impact these tests are having on teaching in general and teachers’ lives in particular.

“These tests count for 40% of a teacher’s evaluation in grades 3 to 8, Arettines explained, “If the students the teacher has score ineffective two years in a row, the teacher can be fired, even if a teacher has been rated highly effective by the district for years.  The tests don’t take into account the students’ background, family history, or learning needs, for example, how many students are remedial readers.  People are upset because they (the Cuomo administration) are putting politics above education and the welfare of children.  True teaching is being decreased because many teachers are being pressured to get students ready for these tests.”

Could this anger over education policies hurt Cuomo at the voting booth in November?

According to Ken Darr, a high school English teacher in Jericho, “This is a warning. The movement will only increase the longer the governor waits and doesn’t act on the changes that need to be made in education.  We’ll be there in November, all 600,000 of us!”  The changes Darr would like to see include removing the current Commissioner of Education, funding state mandates that are sent to local school districts, and letting local boards of education do their job.

Some teachers felt it was time to abandon the Democratic Party.

“Cuomo has betrayed public education,” said Neal Madnick, a high school social studies teacher in Merrick, “He should really switch parties and become a Republican already.  If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.  We need a real Democrat on the Democratic ticket for Governor.  Go Green Party!”

Another teacher from Connetquot hoped that the Working Families Party would put up an alternative candidate.

Felicio wants to see if Cuomo will deliver.  “We’re willing to work with him,” Felicio said, “but it all depends on what he does.  If he doesn’t do anything, we’ll ramp the message right back up.”

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