Thursday, March 12, 2015

Flanagan and Me

By special guest blogger Mary Ahern, UFT Chapter Leader, PS 182Q
Like most NYC teachers who are even remotely aware of what goes on in Albany, I don’t have a lot of love for NY State Senator and Education Committee Chair, John Flanagan.  It goes back to 2011 when The Flanagan Bill sought to eliminate seniority protection only for those teachers lucky enough to work in New York City.
So, when I saw Senator Flanagan this past Saturday marching in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Kings Park, I decided it was time to have a conversation with him. I caught up with him at the end of the parade and stood by patiently until he finished his conversation with Congressman Lee Zeldin.  I acknowledged that this was probably not the appropriate venue but said I would really appreciate a few minutes of his time to discuss education issues.  Surprisingly he said, “Sure.”
I introduced myself as a NYC public school ESL teacher and we spoke for nearly 15 minutes.  Well, to be honest, I was doing most of the talking and he occasionally interjected with an objection or explanation.
I’m not a politician so I tend to be more honest than is probably necessary or welcomed by those who are.   I didn’t waste any time in telling him how disappointed I was to learn that while I was up in Albany last week meeting with legislators during UFT Lobby Day he was once again attending a Success Academy rally and showing his support for charter schools over public schools.  I told him his lack of support for public education was troubling.
He said “I support public education.  Where are you getting your information from that I don’t?”  I told him I’d seen photographs of him at the Success Academy rally and to me that indicated that he supported them and what they stood for.  I said that I was also disappointed that Kathy Hochul had attended the SA rally and perhaps even more angry that AFT President, Randi Weingarten had campaigned for her, but that wasn’t what I wanted to speak to him about.
Some of the things we did speak about included:
·       How the original concept of Charter Schools may have been good one (incubators of innovative ideas that could be exported to public schools), but which has now been corrupted by the involvement of hedge-fund millionaires
·       That Students First and the other organization like Families for Excellent Schools are not grassroots organizations but are backed by people who are looking to make money off of our kids.   I pointed out that Rupert Murdoch has said that public education is a $500 billion dollar industry just waiting to be tapped. 
·       His acceptance of campaign contributions from Students First.   He tried to justify this by saying he attends a lot of events and accepts money from different groups but it doesn’t mean he supports everything they stand for.  He started to tell me that even NYSUT had contributed to his campaign but I stopped him by rolling my eyes and saying, “Well, as I said, I don’t agree with everything my unions do.”
·       Charter schools don’t serve the same students as public schools. They don’t accept the same number of ELLs or special education students.  They make demands on parents to volunteer a certain number of hours to the school.  Many “counsel out” students who they believe will bring down their scores or who may have behavioral issues.  They siphon off funding that should be going to help improve public schools. 
·       Success Academy was able to raise over $7 million dollars from wealthy supporters  in just one night yet the Governor included in the budget a mandate that the City has to provide space or pay charter schools’ rent while many of our public school students have to sit in trailers or over-crowded schools.
·       I asked if as Education Chair he had ever visited a struggling NYC public school or any inner city public school.  He told me that following the Success Academy rally he met for an hour with my union President, Michael Mulgrew, and teachers from NYC PROSE schools and that Mulgrew had invited him to visit which he said he would do.
I pointed to the elementary school we were standing in front of and told him that I had gone to school there and I had excellent teachers and had received a wonderful, well-rounded education.  I went on to say, “but I truly believe if you took every one of those excellent teachers and put them in a struggling NYC school you wouldn’t see much of an improvement, if any.”  I tried to explain that it was NOT the teachers that were failing.  I told him that for over 20 years I have been teaching in various NYC public schools.  I’ve seen the blood, sweat, and tears that teachers have put in to help our most vulnerable students. As teachers we WANT nothing more than for our students to succeed in school and in life. We wouldn’t have gone into teaching if we didn’t care about kids, but there are so many obstacles to success, much more so than the schools in the wealthier suburban districts and we need support.
I also pointed out that success cannot be based on a test score.  NYSED had manipulated the scores so that only 30% of all students in New York State would pass.  I asked “If nearly 70% of students in New York State failed, how well would you expect students in New York City schools, which were already performing well below schools in the suburbs, to do?”  I said, “My school had an 18% passing rate on the ELA and yes, that sounds terrible until you take into account that over 30% of our students are English Language Learners in addition to other factors including poverty”   I asked, “Do you think you would be able to go to a country where you don’t speak the language and be able to pass a difficult language exam after ONLY ONE YEAR of study?   It used to be 3 years, which could be extended to 5 but now it’s ONLY ONE YEAR!”
He said, “Well, that’s the Feds.”
I said, “Yes, it’s the Feds who decided to reduce the exemption but NY State is now using these flawed test results to label our students, our schools, and our teachers as failures when they’re NOT.”
I told him that in the past I’ve worked at SURR schools, Chancellor District Schools, etc., and there are so many needs students in impoverished neighborhoods have which are not being met: counseling for students, counseling and/or parenting classes for parents, a whole host of supports that aren’t being provided. Yet the teachers are there doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.
He then said, “Well, I don’t have nearly the amount of experience you have so I wouldn’t even try to tell you you’re not correct.”
He asked me to find out more about him because he repeated that he does support public education.  He said he’s working to eliminate the GEA and he attends many events, most which are not covered by the news.  He said the “Smithtown News” is probably going to attack him for attending the Success Academy rally but again it does not mean he supports everything they stand for and he doesn’t support everything in the Governor’s agenda either. 
I ended by saying, “I appreciate your time. Please support public education and properly fund our schools.”
He thanked me, shook my hand (said it was cold) and we said goodbye.
I’m glad I finally had an opportunity to speak with him directly.  There was so much more I probably should have said.  I completely forgot to bring up class-size reduction (which I believe is crucial to improving student outcomes) but I think I touched on a lot of other important issues.  
While I don’t predict that our conversation will cause Senator Flanagan to completely change direction, I do know that he heard what I had to say.  He seemed concerned that he’s being seen as anti-public education and anti-teacher.  Thanks to the efforts of teachers and parents from around the State, that’s not a place where most NY politicians want to be these days.  He seemed surprised that I called him on his acceptance of campaign contributions from Students First and linking him to hedge-fund millionaires.  Maybe, just maybe, he will think about some of these things as he goes forward. 
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