Ali Gordon, a school board member in the Comsewogue school district on Long Island, Néw York, believes that it is time to stand up and speak out. For her dedication and courage, I name her to the blog’s honor roll.
This is my fourth year serving as an elected trustee of the Comsewogue School District Board of Education. Trustees are elected by their community. The position is voluntary- there is no pay. There are no hidden perks, no allowances. It is time-consuming, with multiple meetings and events monthly, dozens of documents to review in preparation for the meetings, as well as correspondence between trustees and administration and of course with the community. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, I miss out on time at home with my husband and four children.
It is stressful- particularly as we work to develop an annual budget. No matter what decisions we make as a board, there will always be someone disappointed. But I love every minute of it because I love my community- and I take very seriously the responsibility entrusted to me by the community.
I’ve been talking about the issues facing public education for a long time, but it’s not enough to talk. I am suggesting practical solutions could be implemented now.
At this point, I want to make clear that the opinions I express here are mine alone- I do not speak for the Comsewogue School District, or the rest of the Board of Education. I can’t stay quiet for fear of retribution from NYSED anymore. I have been warned that a Trustee who speaks out could be removed by the State Education Commissioner. But this is too important: our schools, our children, OUR FUTURE depends on those of us who were elected to represent the best interests of our communities doing exactly that.
This is a particularly difficult time for public education, especially in New York. Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents are pushing ahead with education policy in which the ends do not justify the means. There has been tremendous criticism of Governor Cuomo, and his recent decision to withhold state aid runs and extort the Legislature to pass his education reforms. Our legislators are stuck between agreeing to terrible reforms, and getting more funding for their local schools, or refusing the Governor, which would lead to a late budget and a potential loss of millions of dollars for those schools.
The reforms Cuomo is pushing on public schools are disingenuous, dangerous, and wrong. He is working out of the privatization handbook- attempting to dismantle unions, turn the public against educators, and make us believe our schools are absolutely awful. He uses inflammatory statistics to support his claims. In the process, our students are the ones suffering. The obsession with standardized testing has taken on a life of its’ own. It seems the federal and state government cannot think of any other way to move forward in education.
But they are not the ones who were elected to determine what happens within your school district. Governor Cuomo was not on the ballot last May when you voted for your local district budget and elected your Board of Education Trustees. Each of Cuomo’s education policies reflect a desire to remove local control from schools. The reason for local control is simple- those who have familiarity with a community are better situated to determine its’ strengths and weaknesses, and to know what works.
The needs of an urban school in a high poverty area will differ from that of a rural school upstate. Even on Long Island, schools not far from one another have very different needs. Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents are searching for a one size fits all answer to a million different issues. They will never work for every community. In the meantime an entire generation of students are being sacrificed for testing data.
Case in point, Gov. Cuomo is now insisting on an investigation into the evaluation procedures (APPR) of Long Island districts, because he thinks the system is skewed to favor teachers. He is demanding NYSED look into these evaluations, because he cannot believe so many teachers were rated effective, or highly effective. Those APPR plans were negotiated (as per labor law) and submitted for approval to NYSED. So the very entity which approved the plans is now asked to investigate them. Here is the point Cuomo cannot fathom: teachers on Long Island were rated highly effective or effective in large numbers because they are effective.
If Long Island was a state, we would rank #1 in the nation for high school graduation rates, with 90.8% of our students receiving their diploma. In addition, Long Island would rank #1 in Intel Semifinalists and #2 in the nation in Siemens Semifinalists, behind California. Cuomo prefers to ignore these statistics because they do not fit his narrative.
So what is the answer? It’s not enough to complain. Name calling isn’t helping. We must propose an alternative vision for our public schools. There are several things than can and should happen now in order to stop the destruction of public schools with misguided education policy.
First, Governor Cuomo must separate his education reforms from his Executive Budget Proposal. If he believes strongly enough in these reforms he should be willing to let them stand alone as legislation and allow a healthy debate in the process. The Legislature would then be tasked with evaluating these reforms based on their merit, through committee hearings, and public input. Our democracy has three branches of government in order to prevent one person from having too much power. Cuomo should not be allowed to circumvent the separation of powers established in our Constitution.
The Legislature should ensure that new appointees to the Board of Regents have knowledge of, and experience in public education. There are four Regents whose terms are expiring, and interviews are being held now, with Legislators expected to vote in early March. The Board of Regents establishes education policies for the state, and it is imperative that they understand public education in order to fulfill these responsibilities.
Parents must educate themselves as to what is happening in their schools. They should ask questions, attend Board of Education meetings, local education forums, and contact their representatives. Every parent must make an educated decision regarding state testing in grades 3-8. This will be the 3rd year my children have refused to take the state exams. I believe this is the strongest weapon parents have in the fight to save public education. As the number of test refusals grows, the reforms dependent upon those numbers will falter. We will starve the testing machine.
School districts must respect a parent’s right to refuse testing on behalf of their child, and Boards of Education must adopt a policy to outline what accommodations will be made for students who are not taking the tests. A sit and stare policy is cruel and unacceptable.
Every one of us has a vested interest in public education. It’s not just cliche to say that these students are our future- it is reality. We must work together in order to move forward and find solutions to elevate public education without destroying things that are already working. I can’t sit by quietly anymore and hope that someone else will make it happen. I have a sworn duty to represent the interests of my community, and that includes speaking out against policies and people who endanger the well- being of our students and faculty.”