Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the effectiveness of cooperation. I cited a handful of examples from NYSUT locals and school districts across the state that demonstrated, quite often, that working together works.
Well, since then, that working together concept has proven itself in several very significant ways. And that's good news for our profession and for the families of New York state.
You've likely read in your hometown newspapers or on the Internet about the state Legislature's budget agreement for the 2006-07 fiscal year that began April 1.
You'll recall that the budget process began with the submission of an executive proposal that posed a serious threat to public education and to the values we hold as educators, health care professionals and public employees.
It was a dangerous proposal and we knew we were in for a fight. The enemies of public service were well organized and well financed. They put together an all-out blitz on several issues. Not the least of these issues was a private and parochial school voucher plan the Trojan Horse of Tuition Tax Credits.
But, working together works. Joined by parents, pro-public education groups and other unions, our members descended on the Capitol in Albany and on lawmakers' district offices.
Through personal visits, faxes, letters, phone calls and e-mail, they successfully convinced legislators that New Yorkers deserved better and that, in fact, the state's economic future depends on a public education system from pre-K through post-grad that has support and commitment from our elected leaders.
The result? At New York Teacher press time, the Legislature's budget agreement includes:
A $1.1 billion increase in school operating aid, to be distributed to all districts in the state, with New York City and other high-need districts getting larger shares;
$254 million to maintain and expand pre-K classes;
Nearly $48 billion in capital construction aid for new and renovated classrooms;
Increased funding for teacher centers;
Restoration of Medicaid and BOCES cuts;
$1.8 million for nursing faculty scholarships and loan forgiveness;
Funding increases for the City University and State University, allowing both systems to hire more full-time faculty and improve student access; and
Maintenance of the Tuition Assistance Program; tuition at SUNY and CUNY will not be increased.
Meanwhile, as important as what's in the budget is what's not those private-school vouchers, a bad idea and bad public policy. The good news is that legislators got the message that public money tax money needs to go to public education. They are to be commended.
This has been a good year for funding of education. It's certainly not everything that public schools need, nor is it everything that the court recently ordered in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. But it moves us in the right direction, which wasn't happening just a few weeks ago.
The Legislature's budget is an essential step toward meeting the needs of public education and health care. The efforts of NYSUT members and our allies, working cooperatively and collaboratively, are largely responsible for these successes, and I thank you and your local leaders for your advocacy.
Of course, having the resources and support for which we fought is meaningful only if we apply them to the needs of those we serve our students and their families.
As I've discussed here before, NYSUT has made a commitment to raise the urgency and facilitate the dialogue necessary to close the academic achievement gap in public education whereby thousands of our children too many of them people of color start school already behind and never catch up. A cycle of poverty, segregation, under funding and failure is perpetuated and all of society suffers.
But it doesn't have to be that way. I know that firsthand, after spending the last few days of March in Rochester . Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski and I visited several schools that have worked toward demonstrating that there are solutions to the academic achievement gap.
The city of Rochester , like many urban areas in the northeast, has significant economic challenges. Jobs good jobs are often hard to come by and many middle-class families have left the city for the suburbs. The student population of the school district is nearly 90 percent non-white, and many families are economically disadvantaged. It's a familiar scenario to those who study the academic achievement gap.
A product of those conditions is the Benjamin Franklin High School , an old school on Rochester 's east side with a troubled history. Troubled, that is, until administrators working side by side with the union, faculty, and staff got creative, refusing to accept less for, or from, their students. Franklin High is now divided into four "schools-within-a-school." Adam and I spent time in Franklin 's International Finance and Economic Development Career High School .
Led by RTA faculty rep Jeff Feinberg and Principal Ali Abdulmateen, we saw small classes, integrated curricula, energetic faculty and an engaged student body. The school has partnerships with local businesses to augment classroom learning. There are opportunities to earn college credit and to participate in apprenticeship programs. And, thanks in part to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, teachers and students have access to first-class technology and science labs.
We also visited the John James Audubon School No. 33, Rochester 's largest elementary school. Nearly 90 percent of these K-6 students are on free or reduced-price lunch. Despite that, like the high school we had just come from, you could almost feel the energy that good teaching and learning exudes. School 33 has its own partnerships, with libraries, colleges and universities, health facilities and community groups.
RTA faculty rep Charlie Mudge and Principal Larry Ellison were proud as they showed us the school's computer technology and the Internet access in all classrooms and the library. They were just as proud as they discussed plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the school's pre-K program; 40 years of a proven program that too many other districts still fail to recognize as key to learning.
Progress is not only being made in urban centers. Just a few days later, I saw the same commitment and dedication fostered by unions and districts working together in the North Country in Plattsburgh and in small rural districts where poverty is just as real as in urban centers.
At the Momot Elementary School in Plattsburgh , I had lunch with a focus group of teachers, parents and administrators, which demonstrated the value of collaboration. Here also, a preschool program (one which involved SUNY Plattsburgh undergraduates as interns) was seen as critical to closing the achievement gap.
One recently retired teacher who now volunteers at School 33 in Rochester put it this way:
"There are pockets of excellence all over
but they aren't being replicated because people can't be replicated," she wrote in an e-mail to us. "And it's the people who create and make the atmosphere for success."
Good people, good financing and real steps at addressing poverty and the societal fallout are all part of what is needed to close the achievement gap. It's rewarding to see that little steps in that direction are having an impact.